Prague, 12 December 1996 (RFE/RL) - The European Union's end-of-the-year summit meeting, which begins Friday in Dublin, was long anticipated as an important benchmark on the 15-nation group's road to basic structural reforms.
The reforms are necessary, all members agree, before the EU can begin negotiations with some or all of the 10 Central and Eastern European nations now closely associated with the Union and seeking full membership -- Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungry, Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia.
That's not the way the two-day meeting is seen today, however. Candid EU officials and analysts alike expect it to be little more than an exercise in futility. One of the best of the analysts, Ian Davidson of the British daily "Financial Times," put it most bluntly a few days ago: "Everybody knows nothing much is likely to happen in Dublin," Davidson wrote. "There is still far too little meeting of minds among the participants over what this summit is for and what it is meant to achieve."
The Dublin summit was supposed to be a landmark session in the EU's much-vaunted Inter-Governmental Conference (IGC), charged with reviewing and reforming its institutions. But nine months of the IGC have so far produced little significant agreement.
As a result, the EU's current president, Ireland, has chosen to keep most of the critical reform issues -- notably, changes in voting procedures and in the powers of the Union's Parliament and Executive Commission -- off the Dublin agenda. Instead, Irish Prime Minister John Bruton will offer a progress report on a draft treaty designed to better fight crime in the EU and bring its citizens in closer contact with the Union's headquarters in Brussels. Commendable as those aims may be, they have little to do with fundamental change in the EU.
Last week, in keeping with a new querulous public tone in the EU, French Foreign Minister Herve de Charette dismissed Bruton's draft text as what he called "the exact reflection of the mediocrity of the work done so far" in the IGC. But France and Germany, the EU's traditional tandem "motor," have hardly come up with anything better themselves.
On Monday, after an unprecedented four meetings in two weeks, Chancellor Helmut Kohl and President Jacques Chirac sent their usual joint letter to the summit. The letter spoke of giving a "decisive impulse" to the IGC. Yet beyond some bland proposals for greater judicial cooperation among EU members, it contained nothing new --and simply served to underline the present lack of coordination between Paris and Bonn. Many EU diplomats see the apparent breakdown of the Franco-German relation as the main reason for the Union's lack of progress in agreeing on reforms.
It hasn't helped matters much that disagreement over a so-called budgetary "stability pact" between Germany and most other EU member states --led by France -- has in no small part poisoned the atmosphere for the Dublin meeting. Germany wants a strict system of automatic sanctions, administered by non-political central bankers, for EU countries joining the European Monetary Union. The EMU is scheduled to begin in two years time and has stiff economic criteria. But France and its many EU allies want a more flexible system, with the final decisions to be made by politicians.
The dispute has dragged on for months, growing increasingly nasty as it became public, and was due to be the subject of an urgent meeting by EU finance ministers in Dublin today. Whether or not the ministers can finally agree on an 11th-hour compromise -- they were unable to do so at a similar meeting last week -- the ill-will generated by the quarrel is likely to spill over to their leaders' own meetings tomorrow.
On Saturday, the EU heads of government will meet with their counterparts from Central and Eastern Europe -- an encounter that has now become a regular supplement to the Union's biannual summits. The EU leaders are not likely to have much good news for their guests this time. About all they can offer as consolation is the hope that by the time the EU's next six-month presidency -- chaired by the Netherlands -- ends in June, the IGC will have come up with real accords on basic reforms. In other words, forget Dublin, it's the Amsterdam summit that counts.