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Europe: Can Dublin Summit Save EU's Inter-Governmental Conference?

Prague, 3 October 1996 (RFE/RL) -- This Saturday's upcoming special summit meeting in Dublin of the European Union was called at the insistence of France and Germany, and against the express wishes of Britain's conservative government.

Other member states, such as Italy, Spain and even host country Ireland --the EU's current president-- were at best lukewarm about the one-day, "informal" get-together with no formal agenda. Analysts say that the lack of enthusiasm, no less unanimity, among the EU's 15 members does not bode well for the summit's success.

France and Germany, the EU's long-time bilateral "motor of progress," want the Dublin summit either to break the deadlock that has set in at the Union's critical Inter-Governmental Conference (IGC) or, what is more likely, to agree on its earliest possible demise.

The IGC was prescribed in the Maastricht Treaty that turned the European Community into a Union, and was later dubbed "Maastricht Two." The conference was mandated to review the 1993 treaty's institutional reforms and propose new ones, if they are deemed necessary. It began seven months ago in Turin during Italy's six-month EU presidency and has since shown little progress.

Two weeks ago in Strasbourg, addressing the Union's Parliament, EU Executive Commission President Jacques Santer spoke bluntly about what he called the IGC's "lack of dynamism, its too-low pitched ambitions." There is, he said, a big "question over the commitment of all member states to facing (reform) problems squarely and moving forward."

Santer reminded the parliamentarians that the conference had been called "to bring the Union closer to its citizens, to make it more efficient and more credible." But, he suggested, its failure so far to agree on reforms was having exactly the opposite effect. He said that "national governments (were) using the conference to revive their old proposals," not to effect essential changes in voting procedures and in the respective powers of the EU's three chief institutions (the Council of Ministers as well as the Executive Commission and the Parliament).

The IGC was due to conclude next June in the Netherlands at the end of the Dutch presidency. Holding to that date is important because the EU has promised 12 candidate states --10 from Central and Eastern Europe, plus the Mediterranean island nations of Malta and Cyprus -- to begin negotiations on their membership applications six months after the IGC's conclusion. (The 10 are: Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovenia and Slovakia.)

The big problem is that if the IGC fails to agree on internal structural reforms necessary to the EU's enlargement, those negotiations will be even more complicated, difficult and prolonged than is now reasonably expected.

In Strasbourg, Santer asked rhetorically: "Do we really want to carry on (new membership) negotiations and discussions on internal reforms at the same time?"

France and Germany had two other cogent reasons for seeking to wind up the IGC on time, even if that means cutting the conference's losses while declaring it a success. One reason was their fear that an IGC bogged down in discord would poison the Union's atmosphere for the only reform the EU has been able to agree on since 1993: the introduction two years from now of the Maastricht-ordained European Monetary Union (EMU), and the appearance the following year of the new single currency -- as an exchange mechanism, if not yet as cash-- now known as the "Euro."

The two countries' second reason for wanting to adjourn the IGC on schedule has not to do with EU considerations but with their own domestic politics. Conservative governments in France and Germany face legislative elections in less than two years, and both fear a bogged-down IGC unable to end on schedule would hurt their electoral chances and enhance those of their rival Left parties.

In France's case, there is a further complication: Conservative President Jacques Chirac has promised his electorate a referendum vote on whatever reforms the IGC can agree to, and he doesn't want the referendum to coincide with, and influence, the French legislative elections.

For his part, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl has apparently given up on the IGC, letting it be known he now favors a "Maastricht Three" conference before the year 2000.

Commission President Santer, who will attend the Dublin summit, says his "mind boggles at the idea of holding a second IGC, a play-off as it were, before the end of the century."

British Prime Minister John Major, preoccupied by his dwindling prospects in general elections due to be held by May, is worried that Saturday's summit will rekindle passions among his own party's "Euro-Skeptics" two days before it begins its annual conference in Bournemouth.

Chirac and Kohl have their own electoral agendas.

As the Dublin meeting is likely to demonstrate again, there is little unity today in the dispirited European Union.