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EU: Key Nice Summit Has Easterners Watching

  • Breffni O'Rourke

The European Union is about to start a crucial summit in the French southern resort city of Nice. The three-day meeting (Dec 7-9) was due to decide on internal reforms aimed at streamlining EU institutions so they can cope with eastward enlargement. But with vital interests of the 15 members at stake, the summit can be expected to be extremely difficult. And from outside, the 10 central and east European candidate states will be watching closely, hoping for some progress. RFE/RL Correspondent Breffni O'Rourke reports.

PRAGUE, 4 DECEMBER 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The long accession negotiations that the European Commission have been holding with the candidate countries often have the flavor of a tutorial. Brussels lectures the "pupils" -- the Easterners -- on how to apply the EU body of rules. At intervals, the candidates' faults, failings and omissions are listed, and improvements called for.

The EU's philosophy is that candidates must make the painful adjustments before the certificate of membership is issued, not after. But the process has gone ahead slowly, and the candidates have become restless.

Now, at Nice, the situation is reversed. The EU members have long pledged to get their own house in order, ready to receive newcomers in the next few years. And the watching Easterners will surely be ready with criticism if they fail to do what they have promised.

Probably with this in mind, current EU president France has moved to dampen unreasonable expectations. Michel Barnier, a Frenchman who heads the European Commission's internal reform efforts, told a press conference last week (Nov 27) that no miracles can be expected:

"We will not have at Nice a grand reform of institutions. But I think that it's still possible to have a correct response, a correct reform ... a useful reform."

Barnier has been organizing pre-summit inter-governmental talks. He said those talks are bogged down, with no agreement on how to proceed. He did not make clear just how diluted what he called a "correct" and "useful" reform might be, compared with a "grand" reform.

Other EU leaders, notably Commission President Romano Prodi, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and French President Jacques Chirac, have also spoken in recent days of the difficulties ahead. Yet with such high stakes at risk, total failure at Nice seems unthinkable. Some sort of compromise will have to be reached, given the inevitability of the coming enlargement and the need to have a manageable union.

Erik Berglof, a Swedish expert who has done a comparative study of EU reform models, puts it this way:

"What everybody should care about is the overall efficiency of the system, how well it works, the whole system. It is really in nobody's interest to get complete gridlock. Only those who are against any form of EU decision-making would support that."

One key reform issue is limiting the use of the national veto right, under which any one EU country can block moves in specific areas if it considers that its vital interests are at stake. In a greatly enlarged union, excessive veto use could spell paralysis.

The plan is to replace the veto in as many cases as possible with qualified majority voting, or QMV. One formula under discussion is that of the so-called "double majority" vote. Under this, a successful decision would need the support of more than half the weighted votes of EU members as well as states that contain more than half the EU population.

Another issue is the size of the executive Commission. Currently it has 20 members, with two commissioners for big countries like Germany, and one each for the rest. Should the Commission stay its present size -- which means not all countries could have a commissioner at any given time? Or should it expand to give one seat to each country, despite the unwieldy size and lack of jobs available for so many commissioners?

Whichever way it goes, the Commission is perceived as likely to become less open to influence by the big five -- Germany, France, Britain, Italy and Spain -- because of the increased presence of small states.

The word around the corridors in Brussels is that the big countries are losing interest in the Commission for that reason. At Nice that will translate into a more intense focus on the what happens to the member-states' own Council of Ministers, the EU's main decision-making body, which sets policy.

That's because it's previously been agreed that a new weighting formula should be devised to compensate the big countries for the loss of their second commissioners and to overcome their fear that they will be outvoted by the smaller member states. But devising such a formula has brought new and sharp disagreements.

If population is considered as a basis, as in some form it must be, the big countries are very different even one from the other. Germany has more than 82 million people, Spain only half that number, while France lies in the middle, with some 60 million.

Can they agree, therefore, that Germany be awarded considerably more votes in the Council of Ministers than its key founding partner France? That does not seem likely, given that until now Germany, France, Britain and Italy have had an equal number of votes [10] and Spain only slightly fewer [8].

French European affairs minister Pierre Moscovici was quoted over the weekend as saying that France was not prepared to give Germany a greater weight.

And among the small countries, the disparities are the same. Will tiny Luxembourg, a Union founder member with a population of less than half a million, accept a miniscule vote on that basis?

(Bruce Jacobs contributed to this report)

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