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EU: Berlin, Brussels Seek To Ease Tensions

  • Breffni O'Rourke

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder is meeting in Brussels this evening with European Commission President Romano Prodi. Their talks are likely to have awkward moments, as Schroeder has in recent months criticized what he sees as an anti-German bias at the commission. Prodi, for his part, says Germany can't have any special favors and must be content to be treated like any other member. The tension between the EU and the union's biggest member is unusual and could have far-reaching consequences.

Prague, 29 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Brussels is known as a gourmet paradise, with many fine restaurants. Among those savoring the city's culinary delights today are German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and European Commission President Romano Prodi, who are dining together at an exclusive restaurant in the suburbs. But what seems certain is that the chef will need all his skill to sweeten the bitter taste of discord between the two men.

In a series of highly publicized attacks in recent months, Schroeder has criticized the commission for what he sees as an anti-German bias. The list of grievances is lengthy and includes opposition to Brussels' plans to liberalize the car-distribution market and to draw up new company-takeover rules.

What is unusual is not only the vigor of the attacks, but the populist tone Schroeder has used in his criticism. Referring to Germany's position as the biggest net payer into the EU budget, he has called Germany a "good milk cow" that should be humored if it is to continue giving its best.

Such comments set a new tone for Germany, which in past decades has gone out of its way to be an exemplary member of the European project and has generally accepted its position as EU paymaster without too much grumbling.

Schroeder, it is clear, is playing to his domestic electorate. Although he remains personally popular, his Social Democratic Party (SPD) has its back to the wall just four months ahead of national parliamentary elections. The SPD is trailing badly in opinion polls, and this month's debacle in the Saxony-Anhalt state election indicate the situation may be getting worse. In Saxony-Anhalt, the SPD was overrun by the conservative Christian Democrats and even by the reformed former East German Communist Party.

But Schroeder's use of the EU as a whipping boy to win votes has its dangers. Reuters reported that Prodi has privately told the chancellor that such tactics can eventually undermine confidence in the EU among the citizens. They can certainly make life more difficult for Prodi, whose reputation has not yet fully recovered from stinging criticism some months ago of his leadership qualities.

And they come at a time when the EU is under strong criticism from hard-line elements on the political right. French far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen is using his unexpected success as a French presidential candidate to denounce the EU, while in Italy rightist Northern League leader Umberto Bossi -- now a government minister -- has also been heaping scorn on the union. Although Schroeder has politically nothing in common with the anti-EU Le Pen and Bossi, he has nevertheless helped bring a certain jeering tone into the political mainstream.

That is not to say that Germany's grievances are not valid. But London-based analyst Steven Everts, of the Centre for European Reform, wonders why Berlin has not taken other channels to achieve its ends, particularly in cases where executive power does not rest solely with the commission.

"What the German complaint is, is that as the commission draws up its proposals, it has paid insufficient attention to German considerations. I think this is spurious, but this is their argument. I would say, well, the German government is free like any other EU government to make its representations to the commission as it draws up its proposals, then the proposal goes to the Council [of Ministers] and there Germany can make its case."

Prodi has already made clear that Berlin can't expect special treatment or exemptions just because it's the biggest contributor. All members must be treated alike, he told the German daily "Sueddeutsche Zeitung."

Both men will be supported by a formidable group of advisers and commissioners at today's dinner. Both have also let it be known that they regard the encounter as a chance to mend fences, rather than to air new problems. Prodi in particular would seem to have little room to maneuver; any backdown could be seen as a new sign of weakness.

But as the dishes come and go, and as the wine flows, Everts says there will be an overriding consideration: "There is a realization on both sides that this relationship is too important to let it drift into some sort of acrimonious bickering; the commission cannot achieve its objectives without German support; Germany cannot achieve its objective of having an effective EU without having also an effective commission."

As Everts says, Prodi, Schroeder and all the rest understand that the Berlin-Brussels relationship can never be allowed to fail.