Prague, 12 May 1997 (RFE/RL) - West European leaders are already in high gear as they begin a final, eight-week super effort to change the face of the Continent by nailing down the coming enlargements to the East of NATO and the European Union.
What put them in cruising speed was the overwhelming electoral victory by Britain' Labor Party 12 days ago, immediately interpreted -- particularly by the Union's current Dutch Presidency -- as a sign of waning anti-EU feeling in Britain.
Now official calendars are rapidly filling up. The rush is on to conclude EU internal deliberations at the organization's summit meeting in Amsterdam in five weeks. That would allow the 15-nation Union to keep its pledge to Cyprus and to some or all of the 10 candidate countries from Central and Eastern Europe to begin membership negotiations early next year. Candidates for NATO membership are due to be announced three weeks later at the Alliance's summit in Madrid.
That is the hope, in any case. The reality is that many difficulties still have to be overcome, particularly within the EU, which must decide on basic institutional reforms that will at once reduce sovereignty and allow expansion. And the big unknown is still independence-proud Britain, whose willingness to surrender sovereignty in critical areas such as foreign and security policies remains highly doubtful.
When in doubt, travel -- that's the slogan EU leaders seem to be following these days. Within a week of Labor leader Tony Blair's installation as Prime Minister, Dutch Premier Wim Kok was lunching with him in London. Even earlier Labor's new Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, made whirlwind trips to Paris and Bonn. Today in Brussels, Britain's new Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, introduced himself to his 14 colleagues at a gathering of finance ministers.
But the most important "get-to-know-me meeting" is now scheduled for a week from Friday in the Dutch coastal resort town of Noordwijk. That one will feature Tony Blair himself in a half-day, mini-summit appearance. If it is seen to succeed, the EU will be more or less on track toward a degree of consensus on internal structural reforms at Amsterdam -- even though the Dutch have carefully allowed for the two-day Amsterdam summit to extend for an additional day or two, if necessary.
If the meeting with Blair is seen to fail, then all the carefully laid plans of the Dutch and others will turn out to be so much wishful thinking. And though NATO enlargement is likely to go forward no matter what, surely an EU disaster would, at the very least, demoralize the Alliance -- the two organizations share many members.
A look at officials' calendars shows how much will depend on a successful EU-Blair meeting. Four days later, Russian President Boris Yeltsin is due to attend a Paris meeting -- another summit, of course. There, it is hoped, he will sign some sort of bilateral document with NATO before the Alliance issues its invitations to several Central European candidates in July. Last week, he said that such a deal was what he described as "98 percent" completed.
But when Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov was asked whether the May 27 Paris meeting could conceivably end without a signed document, he said: "I can't rule that out." Primakov also said that his meeting tomorrow in Moscow with NATO Secretary General Javier Solana -- the sixth round of negotiations between the two men -- would make clear whether there would a document to sign in Paris or not.
It's hard -- but not impossible -- to believe the Russians will come to Paris and not sign an accord with NATO. Attending the ceremonies in the French capital will be U.S. President Bill Clinton, who will then go on to the Hague for meetings with Dutch officials before making his obligatory visit to London to meet privately with Blair. If there is no document to be signed in Paris, or a Russian no-show before hundreds of television cameras, Clinton, French host Jacques Chirac and every other Western leader in attendance would be seen to look foolish.
And if it all works as the Dutch have planned -- successful meeting with Blair, triumph at Amsterdam -- there are still two more summits scheduled for soon after.
One is the NATO gathering in Madrid. The other, due to take place 10 days earlier in Amsterdam, is a first of its kind -- a separate meeting between Union leaders and heads of the 11 EU candidate nations.
There, Central and East European leaders who will have been waiting in the wings for weeks will officially learn their fate: how many of them will be invited to begin membership talks, when and and on what basis. That will all take place on June 27 -- unless some more meetings and travel are scheduled beforehand.