Prague, March 8 (RFE/RL) - All the Central and East European nations that are candidates for membership in the European Union will keep a watchful eye tomorrow (March 9) on the Sicilian city of Palermo, where EU foreign ministers are gathering to prepare a long and critical intergovermental conference on reforming the 15-nation
That's because the length and success of the intergovernmental
conference -- inevitably dubbed IGC -- will largely determine when and
on what terms the eastern nations will be able to enter the EU. High
union officials have repeatedly pledged that negotiations with
potential new member states could begin as early as six months after
the IGC concludes its work -- more than likely, some time late in
1997 -- although no official is promising actual membership before
early next century. Entry, the officials say, will depend on how
quickly candidate states meet EU criteria, which in turn will depend
on how much basic reform the IGC is able to achieve.
The Palermo meeting has been advertised as dealing only with the
"organizational" aspects of the IGC. The conference itself will get
underway in three weeks in Turin. (Italy holds the rotating EU
presidency through the end of June.) But organization means setting
a tone for the months of work to come. It also means deciding on whom
will attend the IGC: should, for instance, members of the EU's
popularly elected parliament be invited to participate? It means as
well questions of agenda -- how much consideration, for example,
should be given to future EU policy in the former Yugoslavia? And,
even more important, which institutional reforms should be formally
considered and which not at all?
The simple answer to the last question is: far fewer than
originally anticipated. When the IGC was scheduled under the terms
of the 1993 Maastricht Treaty -- which on paper at least turned the
European Community into a union -- it was spoken of as a sort of
"Maastricht Two." The conference was heralded not only as a review of
the treaty, acknowledged even by many of its drafters as far from
ideal. It would also undertake reforms necessary for the EU's
enlargement is areas ranging from its costly Common Agricultural
Policy (CAP) to its largely consensus voting rules. Only greater use
of weighted majority balloting would make an expanded EU workable, it
In fact, however, the IGC is likely to have a far more modest
agenda. To cite only one major example again, the union's CAP, which
eats up close to two-thirds of the EU's budget through subsidies to
its over-productive farmers, is not likely to figure at all. When
that became certain last month, it led to what might go down in
history as the first skirmish in what could be the coming war between
the EU and eastern nations over terms of entry.
During a visit to Prague by EU Commissioner Hans van der Broek,
who is responsible for eastern candidacies, Czech Prime Minister
Vaclav Klaus wondered aloud when the "wasteful" CAP would be revised.
The commissioner replied that it was the eastern nations that would
have to change their agricultural policies, not the EU. The EU did
not want to join the east, he reminded Klaus testily. Rather, it was
the eastern nations that wanted to join the union.
Weighted voting arrangements will be on the IGC agenda,
because most -- but not all -- EU members want it there. When the air
went out of the EU's federalist sails some two years ago, real power
reverted to some of its biggest member states. But among them, only
Chancellor Helmut Kohl's Germany remains fervently federalist. At the
other extreme, Britain remains fervently anti-federalist and
strongly opposed to weighted voting arrangements on foreign-policy
and security questions. In between, notably, President Jacques
Chirac's France is caught between its leader's Gaullist instinct for
independence and his realization that post-Cold War France can only
carry international weight through its role in the EU.
The Franco-German partnership that served for decades as the
EU's federalist "motor" has been sputtering at least since last May,
when Chirac was elected, although in recent months he and Kohl do
seem to have warmed up their relationship. As a result, last week's
Franco-German consultations to design common initiatives for the IGC
yielded only modest results. The most significant joint Paris-Bonn
proposal was for a system of weighted voting on foreign and security
questions, which would allow for "constructive abstention" by nations
not wishing to participate in EU actions.
Britain has only tepidly endorsed "constructive abstention,"
insisting that it cannot replace but only compliment current rules that give all member states a veto right in foreign and security matters. But even if all 15
members end up approving the initiative, analysts say, it will only
move the EU toward what Ian Davidson of the Financial Times,
calls "a radical new kind of flexibility" that has little to
do with old federalist notions. That flexibility has also been
called "multi-track integration," "variable integration" and "inner-core federalism."
Whatever it is called, Eastern nations certainly have a stake in
greater EU flexibility -- their entry actually depends on it. In fact,
Central and East European candidate states share a common interest in
successful EU basic reforms of all sorts -- for without them, they
will surely not have an easy or short time gaining membership. The
careful watch the east will keep on Palermo, Turin and future IGC
meetings is a reflection of those hard facts of EU life.