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Germany: Socialist Forum To Discuss Schroeder's EU Reform Plans

  • Roland Eggleston

German officials say Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder will press ahead with his proposals for reforming the European Union despite a less-than-enthusiastic reaction from several other EU governments. In a paper prepared for an autumn congress of his Social Democratic Party, Schroeder has proposed that that the European Commission should be upgraded into a body akin to a European government. His ideas are likely to be discussed at a pan-European socialist forum next week.

Munich, 2 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Schroeder is expected to outline Germany's ideas for reforming European Union institutions at a two-day meeting of European socialists in Berlin next week (May 7-8).

Among those present will be representatives of some of the EU governments that have been less than enthusiastic about the initiative. They include the ruling British Labour party, which said over the weekend that the publicity given late last week to the German plan was not helpful -- coming as it did only two months before British general elections. The Labour Party said Schroeder's notions played into the hands of those who already see the EU as a threat to national sovereignty.

German officials say they also expect a reaction at next week's meeting from French socialists who have previously opposed changes to the EU that might allow Germany to assert its leadership in Europe. So far the French Socialist-led government has said only that Schroeder has contributed new ideas to the debate on Europe's future.

Both Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel and a Danish government spokesman reacted to Schroeder's proposals with warnings that the EU should not become what they described as a "European super-state."

But some analysts find such reactions exaggerated. Brendan Halligan, who heads the Dublin-based Institute for Political Affairs, says the debate on an eventual EU federation can get "very emotional" in Britain because the word itself carries connotations very different from those on the continent. He says that in Britain "federation" is taken to mean the centralization of power and the ultimate end of the nation-state, whereas elsewhere in the EU it is seen as a way of sharing sovereignty, not abandoning it.

As for Schroeder's plans for EU reform, Halligan rejects the notion that the German leader is seeking to create a "super-European state." He told RFE/RL:

"[German Foreign Minister Joschka] Fischer himself has made it very clear, and I think Schroeder will be doing the same, that there is no intention to create a super-European state, which involves the disappearance of the individual member states as nation-states."

Schroeder's views on rebuilding the EU's political institutions were made public over the weekend (Saturday) by a German news magazine ("Der Spiegel"). German officials say they are included in a paper titled "Responsibility for Europe" that is to be presented to a November congress of the ruling Social Democratic party, or SPD.

Several German commentators have suggested that the paper's early release was intended to provoke discussion. But they expressed surprise that Schroeder apparently did not consult either Britain or France before making his views public.

Some commentators note that Schroeder's suggestions reflect German domestic politics. They suggest that Schroeder is already preparing positions for next year's parliamentary elections.

Commentator Dieter Wickert says: "Some of the ideas would protect the interests of the German states, others could change Germany's unwanted role as the paymaster of the EU. Some of his proposals also reflect the division of political responsibility in Germany."

Schroeder's own spokesmen say these parts of the SPD paper do little more than amplify ideas first outlined by President Johannes Rau in a speech to the European Parliament last month. Foreign Minister Fischer also presented somewhat similar ideas in a speech a year ago (May 2000), although in his case he did so as a private individual and not as a representative of the German government. The SPD paper does not refer explicitly to a European government. But it says the EU's executive body, the European Commission, should be upgraded into what it calls a "strong European executive." It suggests that the European Parliament should be given more powers, among them full control of EU budgeting, including agriculture.

The paper also suggests that the EU's main decision-making body, the Council of Ministers, should be turned into a so-called European Chamber of States. In Schroeder's view, this new body would be similar to the upper house of the German parliament, the Bundesrat, which represents the German states at the federal level and has a veto right over some legislation.

Spokesmen for the SPD say the paper seeks to reconcile various positions on European unity. On the one hand, they say, it includes the ideas of those advocating greater integration and giving EU institutions more power. On the other hand, it recognizes the position of those who reject a European super-state and prefer to see a restoration of responsibilities to national governments and regions.

The chief architects of the SPD paper were said to be Schroeder himself, Defense Minister Rudolf Scharping, and the Minister for Development Aid Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul.

The paper also touches on several other issues, including Russia's role in Europe. It says Russia's integration into security structures is a "prerequisite for stability and security in the Euro-Atlantic region."

Another section, on defense, says permanent political and military decision-making structures must be created for the EU. It also proposes what it describes as common "crisis-management procedures."

The paper reiterates the Schroeder government's positions on EU enlargement. It says negotiations should be carried out "quickly and carefully" so that the most advanced candidates can participate in the elections to the European Parliament in 2004. But it also argues that border controls with the EU's future member states should be maintained until they reach the Union's standards for protecting their outer borders.

The SPD paper also restates the German government's view that in some areas new members should wait for up to seven years before enjoying full rights. It specifically mentions freedom of movement for workers as one area where a long transition period will be needed. This reflects fears in German construction and other industries that the country could be flooded by cheaper labor from new members in Eastern Europe.

(RFE/RL's Breffni O'Rourke also contributed to this report.)

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