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Europe: No Progress Made On EU Reforms

Prague, 8 April 1997 (RFE/RL) - Foreign Ministers of the European Union's 15 member states have again failed to agree on basic reforms to the EU's institutions necessary before the Union can begin its planned expansion to the East.

Meeting for two days and one long night in the Dutch coastal resort of Noordwijk, the ministers were unable to reach accord on the size of -- that is, the number of commissioners in -- a reformed EU Executive Commission. They also failed to agree on the re-weighting of votes in the EU's Council of Ministers, the members' executive body.

Both these institutional reforms, along with several others, are crucial to the EU's rapid granting of membership to Cyprus and to some or all of the 10 Central and East European candidate nations -- Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia.

Some participants told reporters afterwards that there was what they called "heated debate" during the Noordwijk discussions. They also said there were sharp divisions among EU members, particularly between independence-minded Britain and the other 14 -- and, more surprisingly, between France and Germany, the EU's traditional bilateral "motor" of integration.

In the past few months, the EU's Dutch Presidency has twice before convened special ministerial meetings like the one in Noordwijk in an attempt to speed up agreement on EU reforms. The reforms are the subject of a 13-month-old EU Inter-Governmental Conference that usually meets on a junior-minister level and has shown little progress so far. But the foreign ministers themselves have also failed to reach the necessary consensus on reforms. Proposals range from making decisions on foreign-policy questions subject to majority rather than consensual voting to increasing the powers of the EU's Parliament and those of its national parliaments.

Partly as a result of their Noordwijk failure, however, the ministers did agree to schedule firmly a special summit meeting on May 23, three weeks after general elections are held in Britain. The elections are generally expected to install a Labor government after 18 years of Conservative rule. Many EU officials believe Labor Party leader Tony Blair will be more amenable to compromises on critical sovereignty issues than current Prime Minister John Major, whose Tory party is sharply divided on the EU. In the past year or so, to the chagrin of other Union governments, Major has adopted a minimalist stance on further EU internal integration.

The special summit will be held in the southern Dutch city of Maastricht, where the federalist treaty that turned the European Community into a Union was signed in late 1991. Dutch Foreign Minster Hans van Mierlo, whose country currently holds the revolving EU presidency, said the summit was considered what he called "valuable" in several EU capitals. But in announcing the meeting, already dubbed a "Get-to-Know-Tony-Blair Meeting" by British reporters, van Mierlo was careful not to upset John Major. Without citing either Blair or Major by name, van Mierlo simply said that the EU has what he described as "all indications the next (British) Government would be willing to attend."

A further indication may have been contained in a campaign speech made by Blair in London yesterday. In it, the Labor leader charged that Major had left Britain "sidelined and powerless in the EU." Blair also said that he was "determined that (Britain) should become a leader in Europe again and (that there was) an appetite in (the EU) for new leadership."

Judging by the lack of agreement in Noordwijk, the EU might benefit from some new leadership. The traditional Franco-German leadership duo fell apart over differences on reforming the Executive Commission and re-weighting voting in the EU's Council of Ministers. France alone supported the idea of reducing the number of commissioners from the present 20 to 10 -- a pet project of President Jacques Chirac. Germany, along with the other 13 members, favored retaining the current system, which allots one commission to each small member state and two each to five larger states (Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Spain). How that system could work in an EU enlarged to 26 members was not addressed by the majority.

Reforming the 40-year-old voting system in the Council of Ministers, which currently gives tiny Luxembourg (population: 380,000) two votes and Germany (population: 80 million) ten votes, also proved too much for the ministers in Noordwijk. The smaller members, backed by Germany, would simply not entertain any change in the system that would reduce their voting voice. That left France, in the headline phrase of its national daily "Liberation" today, "completed isolated among the 15."

At Noordwijk, French Foreign Minister Herve de Charette played down the Franco-German disagreements, saying they were merely temporary and, in the end, "we are always able to reach common views." Whether the two neighbors can do so will, as usual, be up to their leaders, President Chirac and Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who begin a series of regular meetings tomorrow evening with a dinner in Bonn. The bilateral get-togethers will continue at least until the effective end of the Dutch presidency at a summit meeting scheduled for mid-June in Amsterdam. Chirac and Kohl are hoping to force accord on reforms before that date -- and are apparently counting on a little help from a new British friend, Tony Blair.

The Chirac-Kohl meetings and the new special summit in Maastricht are the latest evidences of a growing sense of crisis in the EU as the Dutch presidency comes to an end. The hope is that the Amsterdam summit will resolve all the outstanding reform questions on June 16 and 17, and to make sure it does the Dutch have decreed that both days will be given over to a meeting of the 15 alone.

In the past few years, the second day of end-of-presidency summits has been devoted to a meeting between leaders of EU members and leaders of candidate states, most of them from the East. This time, the EU summit with leaders of the Central and East European states already closely associated with the Union will take place 10 days after the EU's own summit, on June 27 and also in Amsterdam. That adds still another high-level meeting to the EU's agenda and, more important perhaps, shows where the Union's priorities currently lie.

Judging by the summit calendar, the British question comes first, in a one-day meeting in Maastricht. Then the EU will deal with its other problems, notably those of institutional reform, in two days in Amsterdam. Last and apparently least, comes another one-day meeting in the Dutch capital. There, Eastern leaders -- still held at a distance from the EU itself -- will be told what their fate is to be.