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Western Press Review: Will The EU's Nice Summit Succeed?

  • Joel Blocker

Prague, 7 December 2000 (RFE/RL) -- As the European Union's critical summit got underway in the southern French resort of Nice today, Western press commentary centered squarely on the prospects for its success -- or failure. The scheduled three-day meeting, which may in fact not end until Sunday or even Monday (Dec 10-11), is charged with finding agreement on key internal reforms necessary before the EU's projected expansion to the east. There is patent disagreement among analysts and commentators on whether the meeting will be able to do so.


Britain's Financial Times entitles its editorial "Why Nice Must Succeed." The paper says the meeting "is largely about the distribution of power in an enlarged Union." But, it adds, "to cast Nice in these terms is not to diminish its importance. Old-fashioned concepts such as the balance of power still hold sway in the EU, which has safeguarded the rights of smaller countries while protecting the interests of the larger, more populous states for almost half a century."

The editorial goes on: "Each of the present 15 EU members is determined to preserve, if not strengthen, its position before enlargement. This will test the patience of Jacques Chirac, the French president and mercurial summit host. The horse-trading may well extend into the early hours of Sunday morning. But all those present must keep their eyes on a bigger prize: the post-cold-war reunification of the continent."

"Enlargement," says the FT, "requires reform of the EU's institutions and decision-making. This may seem an abstruse matter," it observes. "But changes are necessary to prevent paralysis as the Union enlarges to 27 or more countries. A sensible adjustment would include a modest increase in majority voting, backed by a re-weighting of votes in favor of the larger countries and a commitment to fewer commissioners. Such an outcome inevitably requires some reduction in the use of the national veto."

The paper concludes: "Failure would provoke a crisis that would go to the heart of the EU's mission to spread peace and prosperity to both halves of Europe. That is why Nice must succeed."


A more skeptical view of the summit is expressed in a commentary in the Wall Street Journal Europe by Michael Gonzalez [who is deputy editor of the paper's editorial page]. Writing from Nice, he says: "First lower expectations, then announce that failure means chaos. This is the one-two punch European leaders [have] delivered ahead of the EU summit [here. Top EU leaders] publicly recognize that so much is on the table that few countries can be expected to ingest it all. Yet," he notes, "they mutter darkly that a deadlock would postpone enlargement and may stop the Union from functioning altogether."

Gonzalez then says: "So here's the rub. European Commission President Romano Prodi and French President Jacques Chirac, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency and is the one pushing most of the reforms, want to avoid getting tarred at Nice." And he adds: "They know all too well that a sizeable fraction -- perhaps a small majority -- of EU citizens do not want to let Poles and Czechs, not to mention Turks, into the EU. But EU leaders also know that to deny East Europeans entry would taint the Union, perhaps permanently."

The commentator says further: "But if enter they must, the Easties must not be allowed to control the Union. Thus much of the wrangling that will take place here boils down to power, and how to slice it." Gonzalez cites the importance of the debate over the future limits on national veto power in the EU and, unlike many other analysts, he favors retaining the national veto in its present form -- and doubts that Nice will change it much. Gonzalez sums up: "There will be rows, there may be sour faces. But chaos? I don't think so. [The] fact is, Europe may emerge as a better place from a failed Nice summit, especially if the [national] veto stays."


In the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Peter Hort similarly sees the "augurs for Nice [as] not promising" -- but for different reasons than Gonzalez. Hort writes in a commentary: "The summit begins under a cloud of ill-feeling between France and Germany over the balance of power in a political community that is set to expand soon from 15 to more than 24 members. Thus, it promises to be one of the longest and most difficult EU summits ever."

He continues: "Most delegations are consequently inclined to expect a modest result on the crucial issues of limiting member states' veto rights and re-weighting the votes in [their] Council of Ministers. The French EU presidency has not ruled out a complete failure, even if negotiations drag out until Sunday or Monday." He adds: "Moreover, President Chirac has burdened the Nice meeting by putting many other topics on the agenda before getting down to the reform of the 1997 Treaty of Amsterdam that is so crucial to make enlargement a success. Aside from the [so-called 'mad cow'] crisis, these include the improvement of the long-term prospects for economic growth, protection against oil tanker accidents at sea, the battle against rising crime, and the situation in the Middle East."


Los Angeles Times Syndicate columnist William Pfaff [published in today's IHT] says: "Most observers expect [the summit to] fail, or to succeed with such meager accomplishments as to amount to a failure. The meeting is supposed to deal with obstacles to the EU's expansion to the former Communist countries in Central and Eastern Europe. The issue is power: How will it be distributed in an enlarged Europe? The key to that," says Pfaff, "is Germany's power."

He continues: "With East Germany incorporated into a unified Germany, the most populous country in Europe and with the largest GDP, the Germans are asking for more votes in Europe's Council of Ministers. This demand," he argues, "carries with it an all but overwhelming burden of recent European history."

Pfaff goes on: "The explosive issue is Germany's demand for more votes in the council than anyone else, which would mean implicit recognition of Germany as the most important European power." This, he believes, "is not a good idea. It breaks with the spirit of equilibrium among the major powers that has always distinguished the European project and provided its moral foundation."

"Germany," Pfaff concludes, "has an unfortunate history of bad judgment when it pushes itself forward. Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and his advisers seem not to appreciate that if Germany were to have more power than anyone else in the EU, it would automatically create coalitions of opposition. Germany would no longer be the indispensable nation at the center of Europe's equilibrium. It would become the disturber of that equilibrium. Given Germany's history since 1871, that is the last thing any German should want."


The International Herald Tribune runs a commentary today by Georges Berthoin, one of the high civil servants who helped set up the EU's predecessor in the 1950s. He writes: "Nice [is] unlikely to be a patent failure. But it is also unlikely to achieve its intended goals. New thinking [is] needed for basic issues such as the makeup of the commission, veto rights, weighted voting and enlargement."

On enlargement, Berthoin says: "It is hard to be confident that institutional reforms achieved in Nice will suffice to permit the existing enlargement process to go ahead smoothly. But," he says, "there is an alternative course." And he spells out a novel idea: "Candidates [including 10 from central and eastern Europe] ought to be declared EU members straight away. A period of adaptation would be administered jointly by the European Commission and the country's government."

He provides the details as well, writing: "Call the administering body an association council. It would oversee harmonization of legislation and improvement of two-way communication. It would deliver an annual progress report. At present," he notes, "a candidate is expected to ingest 38,000 pages of EU standards and regulations practically in one gulp, whatever the damage to the country's legal system and political corps. A likely outcome is that senior EU members will wink, community requirements will not be met, outside interests will move into the candidate country's economy and there will be an anti-European backlash."

"Instead," Berthoin urges, "as non-voting EU members at the start, new members will have national representatives in the EU institutions. Gradually, they will become part of the family. And they have the certainty of belonging -- they are inside. Nice," he sums up, "is the occasion to end the ongoing battle between sovereignties and the common interest. It should appoint a wise men's group to consider new thinking. And Europe, small or large, would at last come unstuck."


The Washington Post writes that the summit "could shape [the EU's] relations for years to come with both the nations of central and eastern Europe and with the United States." In an editorial, the paper writes further: "This is not one of those summit conferences for which the final communiqu has been cooked in advance. On the contrary, EU leaders France and Germany arrive at Nice differing both with each other and with other governments on the reform agenda."

"Traditionally," the paper adds, "the European debate has been between countries, such as Britain, that want the union to grow 'wider' -- by rapidly including new members from the former Soviet bloc -- and those, such as France, that want it to be 'deeper,' with more sacrifices of each nation's sovereignty in favor of common economic and foreign policies and a Brussels-based bureaucracy. This time, though, the Union has to get deeper in order to get wider. It cannot admit more states unless it changes cumbersome rules that require consensus among members to make a decision and that give small states disproportionate power. The fixes," the editorial argues, "will require all the governments to yield more power to Brussels."

The paper says success at Nice is important for two reasons. First, it writes, "the EU has already delayed the process of integrating the former Warsaw Pact countries for more than a decade after their liberation and now would push the timetable for the earliest new members to 2003 or 2004. Further delay would encourage xenophobes and nationalists around the continent and endanger the stability of central Europe." Second, the editorial says, "[a projected] European Defense Force that competes rather than cooperates with NATO could turn the cracks in the transatlantic alliance into an open breach." It sums up: "The failure of the EU's leaders to overcome their internal disagreements may result not in a split of their Union but in its separation from the partners it most needs."


The Los Angeles Times calls the Nice summit's goal of "reshaping the Union to accommodate as many as 13 new members [a] Herculean task. The EU heads of states will succeed," it says, "only if they do not lose sight of the bigger goal: uniting the continent."

The paper's editorial goes on: "Rewriting the EU institutional rules may seem arcane and more important to the bureaucrats in Brussels than to the people in the streets of Berlin. But it will lay the groundwork for bringing many of the central and east European countries under the EU tent. The newcomers -- Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Estonia and Slovenia in the front ranks -- look at EU membership as the route to economic prosperity and an end to wars arising from ancient rivalries. To prepare for membership," the paper says, "they carried out wide-ranging economic reforms and rewrote much of their law to conform to the EU model. Those in the first group of applicants hope to become fully fledged members in two to four years. EU institutional reform will take years to implement and must be agreed to now."

The paper concludes: "A failure at Nice would be a dispiriting blow to the former Eastern bloc countries' hopes of joining the rest of Europe. More worrisome, a failure would strengthen the hand of the half-a-dozen countries at the core of the EU that want to forge ahead on their own toward some form of federation. That," it says, "is where Europe could start unraveling again."