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Europe: Critical Dutch Presidency Of EU Begins

Prague, 2 January 1997 (RFE/RL) - With the arrival of the new year, the Netherlands yesterday took over the European Union's revolving presidency for what is generally agreed will be a critical six-month period.

Analysts and EU officials alike say that the Union will either have to agree on basic internal reforms before June 30 or revise its timetable for beginning membership negotiations with some or all of the 10 Central and East European candidate states seeking early entry. (The 10 are: Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia).

Those talks, EU officials have repeatedly said, should start six months after the conclusion of the group's Inter-Governmental Conference (IGC) mandated to work out structural reforms. The IGC began nine months ago and is scheduled to end by mid-year. The trouble is, the conference has so far agreed on absolutely nothing of consequence. If it is unable to do so before the end of the Dutch presidency, as now appears distinctly possible, the EU's timetable will be set back accordingly and its credibility severely damaged.

Whatever country holds the presidency of the Union cannot dictate what important actions the EU will take. That depends on arriving at a consensus among all its 15 member states. But the EU's president can have considerable influence over setting the EU's agenda and priorities, and is charged with drafting important agreements and treaties for the consideration of all members. In the case of the Netherlands, that means -- if the IGC can conclude by the end of June -- drafting a treaty that lays down reforms and establishes new rules for the Union.

The last time the Dutch presided over the EU, in 1991, their efforts at drafting what later became the Maastricht Treaty were universally considered -- not least by the Dutch themselves -- to constitute a diplomatic debacle. One of the most federalist-inclined EU members, the Netherlands presented its partners in September of that year with an over-ambitious draft document for political union that was rejected by all other members.

The day the disaster occurred is still remembered as "Black Monday" in the Hague. German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, himself an ardent federalist, was so unhappy with the work of Dutch Prime Minister Rudd Lubbers that two years later he vetoed his nomination as the president of the EU's Executive Commission. Finally, it was Germany and France that worked out a compromise text that was signed in December in the Southern Dutch city of Maastricht.

Now, the Dutch have to worry about "Maastricht Two," the name already given to the new treaty that is due to emerge from the IGC's work. But this time its a very different kind of Dutch government that is presiding. Lubbers was idealistic, flamboyant and -- some say -- impulsive. His counterpart today, Wim Kok, is pragmatic, sober and -- after many years in labor relations -- an excellent negotiator.

Kok is a Socialist, but he heads a Left-Right coalition based more on consensus politics than ideology that has ruled the country for the past three years. His government is highly popular in the Netherlands for having restored the country's economy to health after a long period of recession and high unemployment. He is said to enjoy a warm relationship with Helmut Kohl.

Kok's foreign minister, Hans van Mierlo, said last week that the Dutch will take a modest, low-key approach to their presidency. He called it "sobriety in difficult times," an acknowledgment of the austere economic circumstances prevailing in many EU states as well as the evident distress the Union is having in reaching agreement on major reforms.

Van Mierlo has also spoken openly of the unlikelihood of any substantial progress being made at the IGC before British general elections are held, probably in early Spring. Britain's Prime Minister John Major's Conservative Party is bitterly divided over further EU integration, and it is no secret that Germany and other EU members are hoping that the highly favored Labor Party, led by Tony Blair, will win. But Labor too is divided over the EU, and analysts do not expect sovereignty-minded Britain suddenly to embrace federalism, whatever the elections' outcome.

Still, a British Labor government would likely be more flexible on EU matters than Major has been in recent years. That's why the Dutch are speaking publicly about the possibility of an EU "interim summit meeting" in May, only a month before the end-of-the-presidency summit scheduled for mid-June in Amsterdam. Van Mierlo said the decision on the May meeting will be a "tactical" one, based on an assessment of what could be accomplished in the short period between the British elections and the Amsterdam meeting.

What all this points to is an intense, action-packed last six weeks for the Dutch presidency. Can a small country with a pragmatic leadership end the EU's recent inertia and point it toward greater unity, as well as larger membership, in the 21st century? The answer to that question will come in Amsterdam on June 16 and 17 -- not a day before.