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EU: Referendums Over, Other Hurdles To The New Europe Remain

  • Breffni O'Rourke

Latvia's successful referendum on European Union membership at the weekend completes a key step toward the historic expansion of the union into Central and Eastern Europe. The 10 candidate countries are set to accede to the EU by next spring. But the union itself is now in ferment as it tries to create the necessary conditions to receive the newcomers. This could pose problems for the expansion process.

Prague, 22 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Latvians have voted by a big majority to go ahead and join the European Union. Their successful referendum at the weekend was the last of a series of votes among EU candidate countries that aim to join the union next year.

The Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, Estonia, Lithuania, Malta, Slovenia, and Slovakia had previously voted "yes," and Cyprus plans to join without a referendum.

Despite early fears that in some candidate states the accession process might falter, the people of the region have given a clear endorsement to union membership. And despite some grumbling on the part of present members, the union is glad to have the newcomers.

Latvian Prime Minister Einars Repse expresses the general sense of relief felt in Europe at this point in the accession process: "People were running away from the Soviet Union, they are running into the European Union. The Soviet Union was just a totalitarian state, it was a communist regime, it was an empire. The European Union is a [union of member states]. So the word is the same, but the essence is quite different."

The trouble is that the new European house to contain the greatly expanded 25 member states is far from ready. A new draft constitution for the EU has been prepared by a special convention under Valery Giscard D'Estaing. But the document appears likely to be at the center of major battles at the Inter-Governmental Conference (ICG) starting in Rome on 4 October.

Budapest-based analyst Pal Tamas, of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, says the IGC is perceived as marking a strengthening in the role of the accession countries. He notes they will be at the Rome conference as active partners of the old union members.

"It is a very positive step because it is really a major issue for public opinion in most of the candidate countries, to understand that they are [now] active players, not passive players only invited to the club, instead, that they have something to say," Tamas said.

In fact, the smaller and medium-sized countries, both old and prospective EU members, have taken the initiative. They have formed the so-called "like-minded" group of 17 that will strive at the IGC to get a better deal from the draft, which they see as favoring the big countries.

Germany, France, and Italy have all warned that they do not want Giscard d'Estaing's draft picked apart, saying the document is substantially complete. But other countries, big and small and east and west, have a host of changes they want to make. These range from defense arrangements, to the composition of the main institutions, to voting weights.

Poland is a case in point. As Warsaw-based analyst Antoni Kaminski points out, in the Nice Treaty of 2000, Poland and Spain were each given almost as many votes in the future EU Council of Ministers as Germany and France, although their populations are much smaller. The new draft constitution however considerably reduces their voting weight. And as Kaminski says, no Polish government can be seen to back away from defending Poland's interests, especially in view of next year's elections.

"I think the expression of the Spanish Prime Minister, Mr. [Jose Maria] Aznar, of Nice or 'muerte' -- Nice or 'death' -- is something even more true in the case of Poland," Kaminski said.

Kaminski of the Polish Institute of Political Studies says Poland cannot back down. He suggests a way out: "You might see some face-saving compromises on both sides, this has happened a number of times in the history of European integration, I think this would create a very difficult situation, but I think Europeans are specialists in solving impossible problems."

The Italian presidency of the EU hopes to wrap up the IGC before the end of the year, with the draft approval by the EU leaders at a summit that will include candidate country leaders. Many feel that this timetable is over-optimistic, given the differences.

Even if the IGC is successfully ended, the hurdles to expansion are not all scaled. Some countries, notably Denmark and Ireland, but also possibly as many as five other countries, plan to hold referendums on the constitution resulting from the IGC.

Denmark and Ireland have previously delayed or rejected important EU treaties, and to do so in this case would likewise throw the expansion process into limbo.

So even if the EU's eastward expansion process reached a milestone this past weekend, the road ahead is not entirely clear.

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