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Euro: Kohl and Chirac Pledge Joint Action on EU

Bonn, 10 April 1997 (RFE/RL) - Meeting last night for the first time in four months, the leaders of Germany and France again pledged to work together to push through the basic institutional reforms in the European Union necessary before the group's planned expansion to the East. At an informal dinner in Bonn, Chancellor Helmut Kohl and President Jacques Chirac also again denied there were any insoluble problems between the two nations, whose close cooperation over the past four decades has constituted the EU's integration "motor."

But neither the pledges nor the denials convinced skeptical analysts that Germany and France weren't currently on a collision course over differences on how to reform the EU. Some commentators even said the timing of the Bonn meeting showed that the personal as well as political relation between Kohl and Chirac --never perceived as very warm-- had worsened recently. They noted that the two leaders late last year promised to meet "every six weeks" to work on bilateral as well as EU issues, but have failed to do so. They also noted no date was given by either side for a future Kohl-Chirac encounter.

Significant differences between Bonn and Paris on EU reform proposals emerged earlier this week at a meeting of the Union's 15 foreign ministers in the Netherlands, which currently holds the organization's revolving presidency. France strongly urged a radical cut in the number of EU commissioners each member state can have, proposing a reduction of the current 20-member Executive Commission to 10 to 12 rotating seats. That upset some of the EU's smaller states, which would lose their much-coveted permanent voice in the Commission under the proposal. Consensus-minded Germany spoke for the smaller states, and against France, in suggesting a compromise that would still allow almost all members to have a seat on the Commission.

Currently, the 10 smallest EU members each has one voice in the Commission, while the five larger members --Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Spain-- each has two commissioners. Many analysts and candid EU officials say that the problem of reorganizing the Executive Commission is n-o-t likely to be solved until the Union's scheduled Amsterdam summit meeting in mid-June --if then. They say the same about another contentious issue between France and Germany that was publicly disputed at the EU foreign minister's meeting on Monday. That is the question of re-weighting member states' voting within the EU's Council of Ministers, the members' chief executive organ, to reflect their respective populations Paris wants to reshuffle the number of votes each member has to ensure that the larger EU states cannot be easily outvoted. That's because, as French officials see it, each past enlargement of the EU has undermined the once-dominant role of the largest states by increasing the number of votes the smaller nations can amass against them. But Bonn prefers a plan for a "double majority," under which both a majority of member states and a majority of the EU's overall population (375 million) would be needed to approve policy decisions.

Both these outstanding problems, as well as differences on other critical institutional reforms, must be resolved before the EU can undertake membership negotiations with Cyprus and any or all of the 10 Central and East European candidate nations --Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia. All these reforms have been the subject of 13 months of discussions at the EU's Inter-Governmental Conference. Neither there nor at occasional special meetings of the group's foreign ministers has any substantial progress been made.

Some analysts say the major reason for the EU deadlock over structural reforms is the apparent malfunctioning of the Franco-German motor and the equally apparent cool relation between Chirac and Kohl. They also say that both conservative leaders are distracted by domestic political considerations linked to their countries' sluggish economies and high unemployment rates.

Both also have to worry about general elections next year, Chirac in the Spring, Kohl in the Autumn. Chirac could be forced into what the French call "cohabitation" with the Left if France's Socialist and Communist parties, today a weak opposition to the ruling Center-Right Government, win a majority of seats, as many recent opinion polls indicate they could. Kohl has an even greater worry --that his recently announced decision to run for a fifth term as chancellor could boomerang and remove him from power. A poll published today (by "Die Zeit") showed a majority (57 percent) of Germans did n -o-t want the Chancellor to be re-elected. But, in tribute to Kohl's political abilities, an even larger majority (59 percent) said they believed he w-o-u-l-d win.

Eastern nations seeking rapid entry into the EU have a considerable stake in the restoration of active Franco-German cooperation. Without it, the reforms needed for the Union's expansion to the East early next century stand little chance of being approved. If France and Germany are not able to make up their differences before the June 16-17 summit in Amsterdam --and the EU's smaller states are not somehow appeased-- the Union's enlargement calendar will surely be revised. Then, all of Kohl and Chirac's recent public promises of admitting some Eastern candidates by the year 2000 will be revealed to be what some analysts have already called them --"mere political rhetoric."