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EU: More Divisions--On Defense And Basic Reforms

Prague, 26 March 1997 (RFE/RL) - The European Union yesterday celebrated its 40th birthday amid fresh evidence of divisions among its 15 member states. This time, the disagreements centered on the critical issues of framing common EU defense and foreign policies, and agreeing on basic reforms before the Union's planned expansion to the East.

To fete the occasion, EU foreign ministers met in the Renaissance splendor of Rome's city hall, where the Union's founding document --known as the Treaty of Rome-- was signed four decades ago. But before they could get around to celebrating past achievements, the ministers got involved in another round of intense bickering that showed again just how disunified the Union really is today.

On Monday, meeting at their headquarters in Brussels, the 15 ministers were unable to agree on the nature and size of an EU intervention in the current Albanian crisis. Yesterday, they disagreed sharply both over a proposal to give the EU a defense role and over a new blueprint for its future shape and direction drafted by the Netherlands, which currently holds the Union's revolving presidency. About all they were able to agree on was to take up the issues once more at still another meeting -- this one now scheduled for the weekend after next in the Dutch town of Noordwijk.

Divergences among the 15 were most marked in discussion of a Franco-German plan -- backed by Italy, Spain, Belgium and Luxembourg -- to commit concretely the EU to a gradual merger with the 10-nation defense group known as the West European Union (WEU). The plan, unveiled publicly for the first time in Rome, was greeted by opposition from the EU's four neutral countries -- Austria, Finland, Ireland and Sweden -- as well as by independence-minded Britain and Denmark.

Swedish Foreign Minister Lena Hjelm-Wallen, known for her outspokenness, warned that giving the EU a military role could alienate Russia and complicate the Union's plans to enlarge into Central and Eastern Europe. She described EU expansion to the East as "the real peace project of our time" and, citing current problems with NATO's scheduled expansion Eastward, she added: "If the EU has a military dimension close to NATO, the same problems may arise around EU enlargement."

British Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind went further in his rejection of the Franco-German proposal, dismissing it because, he said, it would make the EU "for the first time in its instrument of collective security (capable of committing itself) to go to war." The United States, Western Europe's primary provider of security through NATO, is also quite critical of the idea. High Washington officials have said the U.S. would not let the WEU use NATO assets -- such as fighter planes and troop carriers-- if it acted under EU mandate because not all WEU members belong to NATO.

Rifkind was even more dismissive of the Dutch blueprint for structural reforms in the EU, also based largely on earlier Franco-German suggestions. The proposed reforms include instituting majority voting on foreign-policy questions and making the EU responsible for Union-wide immigration and asylum issues. Rifkind said such reforms would add up to what he called "another lurch in the federalist direction" and "were not a basis for agreement" at a mid-June EU summit in Amsterdam, which the Dutch hope will decide on EU structural changes. "Majority voting," Rifkind added, "is neither sensible nor acceptable in foreign policy."

Rifkind's heated rhetoric, which he took pains to repeat to journalists afterwards, was written off by both France and Germany as directed at Britain's Euro-skeptical public five weeks before scheduled general elections. Dutch Foreign Minster Hans van Mierlo said he was confident that EU leaders would endorse a new reform treaty at Amsterdam. He reported "progress" in the Rome discussions, but gave no details, saying only: "There were critical comments" made.

That could turn out to be the EU under-statement of the year. By all other accounts -- including those made by France's Herve de Charette and Germany's Klaus Kinkel -- yesterday's Rome talks on proposed EU reforms were little short of acrimonious. If the majority view is the accurate one, agreement at Amsterdam now seems less likely than ever before. But of course there's another meeting due shortly in Noordwijk -- and, if that too proves unproductive, even others could be scheduled before the deadline date of June 16 in Amsterdam.