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1996 In Review: The European Union's Year Of Discord And Inertia

Prague, 30 December 1996 (RFE/RL) - This was the year that the European Union (EU) was supposed to have moved steadily and confidently toward the basic internal structural reforms that will allow it to open its doors to candidate nations from Central and Eastern Europe.

Once those reforms were accomplished, high EU officials said repeatedly, the Union would soon begin negotiations on full membership with some or all of the Eastern states already closely associated with it -- Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia.

But attempts at basic EU reforms failed spectacularly in 1996. A special EU Inter-Governmental Conference (IGC) began in March and was given 15 months to complete its work. The IGC had been decreed by the 1993 Maastricht Treaty that turned the European Community into a Union, and its task was to review Maastricht and propose additional reforms in the form of a new treaty. Ever since its inception, the conference has been bogged down in discord and inertia.

The IGC was originally advertised as "midwife-ing" the birth of what EU officials optimistically called "Maastricht Two." The officials said it would do so by agreeing on important changes in the powers of the Union's three chief institutions -- the popularly-elected Parliament, the appointed Executive Commission and, perhaps most important, the Council of Ministers of its current 15 member states. Members had especially to agree on new, complex and controversial voting procedures that would allow the EU to cope with an expansion to almost double its present size within a decade.

Meeting at least twice a month -- sometimes with mid-level officials, sometimes with ministers -- the IGC has been unable to come anywhere near these objectives during its first nine months of existence. The conference was supposed to conclude at the end of June 1997 with a treaty all 15 members could sign.

But now there is talk of the IGC continuing at least through October, and perhaps longer. Several weeks ago, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl -- the EU's most fervent federalist -- even publicly suggested that if the IGC continued to prove infertile, it should simply be adjourned permanently and another conference scheduled before the year 2000. He later retracted the remark, but it was understood as a clear reflection of the pessimism now prevalent within the EU.

What accounts for the IGC's failure to date? Analysts and EU officials cite several factors. Foremost among them, perhaps, is the loss of federalist momentum within the Union that began with the painful birth of the Maastricht Treaty itself. Maastricht was signed in the Dutch city after which is named in late 1991.

But it took two strenuous years -- including dangerously narrow positive margins in two national referenda (Denmark and France) -- for the treaty to be fully ratified. By that time, the peoples of the EU had woken up to the fact that they would soon be asked to given up their national currencies, some of their national prerogatives and, many imagined, their very national identities.

That, in no small part, explains the resurgence in national interests that has overtaken the EU in recent years and has so far rendered the IGC an exercise in futility. A change in leadership has also contributed to the loss of the EU's integrationist momentum.

France's Jacques Delors, for a decade (1984-94) the most activist and federal-minded president ever of the EU's Commission, gave way to Luxembourg's Jacques Santer, a well-meaning caretaker wary of any major initiative. It was Santer, nevertheless, who three months ago told the European Parliament that expansion to the East will "come to nothing (if the Union) does not provide a solution to the institutional problems posed by enlargement."

In addition, the generally bleak West European economic climate of the past several years also slowed down federalist momentum and made basic EU reforms a secondary issue for many member governments. With a high Union-wide unemployment rate -- over 10 percent today -- and low growth rates, governments must respond to their own dissatisfied peoples before they can even consider EU priorities.

As a result, power in the EU has devolved away from its headquarters in Brussels to the capitals of some its larger member states -- notably, Bonn, Paris and London. It's no accident that early in the year Britain was able to paralyze the EU in retaliation for Brussels' sanctions over its responsibilities for exporting "Mad Cow Disease." Significantly, too, France and Germany -- traditionally, the Union's bilateral integrationist motor -- are now virtually its only source of new ideas or reasonable compromises.

The trouble is, Franco-German relations are now at their lowest level in recent memory. One reason is a personality conflict, or at least a misfit. Since the election of French President Jacques Chirac 19 months ago, Chancellor Kohl has been unable to build the kind of constructive relation he had with Chirac's predecessor, Francois Mitterrand, and continues to have with other world statesmen like the United States' Bill Clinton and Russia's Boris Yeltsin. But current Franco-German difficulties go beyond personalities and reflect profound cultural as well as political differences.

Thus, France under Gaullist Chirac -- like Britain, the EU's perennial odd-man-out -- wants to preserve the power of the individual nation-state, and is therefore wary of changes in voting procedures. Germany's Kohl wants a more federal Europe in which EU member states reach more decisions through majority voting. Kohl wants to increase the powers of the European Parliament, Chirac wants to enhanced powers given to members' national parliaments.

Chirac wants to introduce an employment clause -- a so-called "social chapter" -- into the new EU Treaty, but Kohl does not. Chirac is for EU foreign affairs being handled by a figurehead, a "Mr. Europe." Kohl wants the secretary-general of the EU's Council of Ministers, a bureaucrat whose name is hardly a household word, to become a kind of EU foreign minister.

Growing Franco-German differences came to a sort of a head this month when, after no less than four separate Kohl-Chirac meetings in a fortnight, the two countries were unable to agree on a mechanism to regulate the European Monetary Union (EMU), due to begin in two years. Kohl, backed by a German Mark-proud electorate, wanted strict automatic rules that would sanction EMU members whose economies strayed from the prescribed path.

Chirac, worried about his country's slow economic growth, wanted decisions on sanctions to be taken against errant EMU members to be political, not to be automatically invoked by central bankers. Only an 11th-hour, face-saving compromise at last week's EU summit in Dublin kept the Franco-German quarrel from exploding in public. But there are other contentious issues between them that could provoke explosions in the future.

Basic internal EU reform is impossible without Franco-German agreement. Even with such accord, it will be difficult and long, as the protracted IGC has shown. In the very best of scenarios, if the Union does agree on structural reforms next year, 2002 is the earliest possible moment for the entry of one or more Central European nations into the EU.

But the year that is now coming to a close has shown that the best possible scenario is far from probable. More likely, the internal disagreements and general lack of momentum the EU has shown in 1996 will continue unabated -- and continue to frustrate the ambitions of Central and East European nations seeking early EU membership. In Brussels these days, there is talk among officials of the year 2005 being the earliest possible "realistic" entry date. Clearly, 1996 has not proved to be a happy year for those in the East yearning for quick integration with the EU.