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EU Preparing Critical Intergovernmental Conference

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 group's institutions.

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 was said.

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.