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Europe: Germany And France Unable To Resolve Key EU Problems

Prague, 10 December 1996 (RFE/RL) - Meeting yesterday for an unprecedented fourth time in two weeks, the leaders of Germany of France were still unable to resolve key bilateral differences. Their disagreements now remain likely to bedevil the European Union's end-of-the-year summit due to open in Dublin on Friday.

Yesterday's encounter between Chancellor Helmut Kohl and President Jacques Chirac took place in Nuremberg and had all the folklore trappings and public smiles that have become a regular part of the two countries' biannual summit get-togethers. Kohl and Chirac strolled through the Bavarian city's celebrated Christmas Market, with the German leader buying gifts for his French guests, and smiled broadly and frequently to local crowds there to greet them.

The same smiles had been earlier been displayed twice within 10 days at meetings in France, and a fourth time in Lisbon last week, where they both attended the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) summit sessions.

The smiles are deceptive, however. Kohl prides himself on diplomacy based on his personal friendships with Presidents Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin. But in the 18 months since Chirac took office, Kohl has never been able to build the same easy relationship he developed over the years with Francois Mitterrand, Chirac's predecessor.

Kohl and Chirac are both political conservatives, both have the same sort of gruff, extrovert characters, and both are renowned trenchermen. But their similarities end there. The personal contact Kohl has had, and continues to have, with others never seems to be there with Chirac, who one Chancellery aide said yesterday was "an eel" so slippery Kohl could not grasp him.

That's surely one major reason they can't agree on the two critical outstanding issues between Germany and France, the EU's traditional bilateral "motor" of integration.

First, German and French views over the implementation of the EU's scheduled 1999 European Monetary Union (EMU) are diametrically opposed. Germany wants a strict system of automatic sanctions for EMU members administered by non-political EU technicians and central bankers. That would deter EMU members from accruing high budget deficits which could threaten the stability of the single currency known as the "Euro." France -- and most the of other 15 EU member states -- wants a far more flexible system, with politicians rather than technicians or bankers making the final decisions.

A senior German official yesterday called this conflict no less than "a clash of different philosophies and cultures."

The same might be said of the second important current Franco-German divergence -- over what kind of structural reforms the EU must undertake in the next few years in order to make it possible to take in candidate states from Central and Eastern Europe.

Germany, which hopes to anchor itself in a federal EU system, wants the popularly elected EU parliament to be granted much greater powers. France, always jealous of its independence, opposes that, seeking instead more power to be granted to national parliaments. Germany wants an expanded EU to settle questions on crucial monetary, political, security and foreign affairs questions far less by consensus and far more by "weighted" voting. France is wary of any further federalization of the EU, with Chirac pushing for the "Europe of Independent States" devised by his mentor, Charles de Gaulle.

No wonder, then, that four meetings in a fortnight have produced no great accord between the two leaders. Yesterday, officials from both countries admitted there had been little progress in resolving differences over the EMU budgetary "stability pact." That issue will now be taken up in an emergency meeting of EU Finance ministers, the day before the Dublin summit begins. The same 15 ministers treated the subject last week in an urgent session in Brussels. They failed to come to any agreement.

As for the big -- and very necessary -- internal reforms, there was little agreement on them as well. In a letter to the current Irish president of the EU, France and Germany did submit some proposals for closer foreign and security policy-making and judicial cooperation among EU members. But they sidestepped the key issues -- most notably, changes in voting procedures -- and couldn't even agree to back jointly a French proposal that the Union appoint a high-level foreign policy representative.

Seldom in recent years have France and Germany appeared so clearly divided. The result, inevitably, is to divide even further the entire EU as it enters a critical reform period. Therein lies further proof, in case it was needed, that the Union's expansion to the East won't be easy.