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EU: Whiff Of Intrigue As Convention On Europe's Future Gets Under Way

  • Breffni O'Rourke

The European Union's grand reform convention opens in Brussels tomorrow. Its task is mainly to redesign the union's institutions so they can function efficiently when membership is nearly doubled by the entry of Central and Eastern European countries. But a whiff of intrigue surrounds the conference, with allegations that the big EU member states are colluding to gain advantage at the expense of the smaller countries. There is also a suggestion that established EU members have arranged for themselves to have better terms of participation than the Central and Eastern European candidate members. As the delegates gather in the Belgian capital, RFE/RL correspondent Breffni O'Rourke reports on developments.

Prague, 27 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Brussels, a city of considerable charm, is no stranger to either pomp or intrigue. The glittering ball attended by the Duke of Wellington's officers on the night before they fought and died to defeat Napoleon at Waterloo is still remembered in the city. And there was intrigue aplenty when Brussels was the center of the rebellion that led to Belgian independence from Dutch rule.

Tomorrow, an international conference opens in the Belgian capital that looks to mix together a dash of both. The conference -- called the Convention on the Future of Europe -- brings together delegates from 28 countries, comprising all European Union member states and all candidate members. Among them are national parliamentarians and members of the European Parliament, as well as officials from the EU's Executive Commission.

Their job will be to radically reform the way the European Union works so that it can continue to function effectively when its membership is nearly doubled in the years ahead. As such, the convention is being billed as a key step in finally overcoming the long division of Europe into East and West.

Chaired by the aristocratic former president of France, Valery Giscard D'Estaing, the convention will last at least a year. There is bound to be pomp at the opening ceremony, even if sober gray suits will be the order of the day. And there will also be a touch of intrigue. From EU member Finland comes an accusation that the big EU countries are planning to push through a reform program that would benefit them at the expense of the more numerous smaller countries.

The accusation comes from Finnish Prime Minister Paavo Lipponen, who said in a Helsinki interview in the "Helsingen Sanomat" that there are "signs" that "some kind of model" has been prepared by the big nations in advance, and that they plan to push this program through the convention.

Lipponen did not specify details of this alleged plan, but he said he expects both the smaller countries and the EU Executive Commission to be pushed aside. Portugal, another small member, says it will be up to Giscard D'Estaing to safeguard the interests of the smaller states and make sure they are not stifled.

There is also some concern about the level of representation of the Eastern candidate countries. Delegates from the candidate countries will participate freely in the convention's proceedings, but they will not have a seat on the presidium that steers the business of the meeting and sets its agenda. This apparently means the candidates cannot place items of particular interest to them on the agenda. They are limited to requesting that such matters be considered.

The deputy head of the Polish mission to the EU, Maciej Popowski, says his country is disappointed and considers the situation "very unfortunate." He says Poland made efforts to have a Polish parliamentarian made a member of the presidium, but that the initiative failed.

"That was basically the only possibility, given the composition of the presidium, that we could have had one of our parliamentarians [on the panel]. And the speaker of the Polish parliament sent a letter to the Spanish [EU] presidency about that yesterday, but I don't know whether we can do anything about it for the time being," Popowski says.

Popowski notes there is nothing in the Laeken Declaration -- the document that called the convention into being -- that prevents candidate countries from having a place on the convention's panels.

"There were no limitations mentioned whatsoever in the Laeken Declaration concerning our [Easterners'] participation in the convention bodies," Popowski says. "So let's say we really expected to be given a chance."

However, the Hungarian mission's counselor, Tomas Szucs, is not particularly concerned. He says the absence of Easterners from the presidium should not damage their interests.

"I hope not, since the theory is that the presidium will be more of an administrative body, and all the decisions will be made by the [full] convention. So I do not think the presidium can harm the interests of the candidate states. And anyhow, I think this view that the candidate states and the member states form two distinctive groups is simply false, because some candidate states will feel much closer themselves to some member states than to some other candidate states," Szucs says.

Szucs says that if the organizers had set aside specific places on the presidium, it would have been an acknowledgment that present member states and candidates belong in two different categories.

Looking at the larger picture, Brussels-based analyst John Palmer sees the convention as a milestone.

"The convention is a very unusual, some would say almost revolutionary, process for debating and deciding the future of the European Union. It no longer involves simply diplomats and governments getting together and devising treaties, as we have had so often in the past," Palmer says. "It directly involves elected parliamentarians from throughout the European Union, both national and European, and indeed also the parliamentarians of the candidate countries. It will also involve in a variety of ways organizations of civil society, which can have direct input [into the convention], [as well as] non-governmental organizations, the regions and all kinds of other interest groups."

The convention will draw up its conclusions in the form of opinions or recommendations. In other words, it will have no power to impose change on the Union's structures. That power remains with the heads of individual states, meeting in conclave. Does that render the whole convention process pointless, insofar as the EU's assembled heads of state could simply refuse to adopt the recommendations?

Palmer, who is the director of the European Policy Centre, says: "Legally, that's true. The heads of state will meet in a special inter-governmental conference in 2004 to finalize the changes. But I think it will be virtually impossible for the heads of state to ignore, or seek to reverse, in a substantial way, the majority conclusions of this convention. So although they [the delegates] do not have the last legal word, I think theirs is the politically determining influence."

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