Prague, 29 May 1997 (RFE/RL) - Less than three weeks before its own designated deadline, the European Union is still far from achieving the consensus on basic institutional reforms necessary before it can begin promised talks with 10 Central and East European countries, plus Cyprus, seeking early membership.
The EU's timetable calls for achieving full accord on structural reforms by the middle of next month at a summit meeting of at least two days' duration in Amsterdam. Those reforms have already been the subject of 14 months of so-far fruitless negotiations among the EU's 15 members at an Inter-Governmental Conference (IGC) that has met regularly at the level of full or junior ministers.
The IGC had been mandated to review and reform the institutions created by the 1992 Maastricht Treaty that turned the former European Community into a Union. German Chancellor Helmut Kohl was the first to dub the new treaty expected to emerge from the Amsterdam meeting "Maastricht Two."
In recent weeks the Netherlands, which currently holds the EU's revolving presidency, has gone all-out to achieve at least minimal consensus at Amsterdam. Its most important effort came last Friday at a specially convened one-day summit in the Dutch coastal resort of Noordwijk attended by British Labor Party leader Tony Blair, elected Prime Minister in a landslide vote four weeks ago.
Over the past year Blair's predecessor, Conservative John Major, had taken a strongly negative stance toward further EU internal integration because of growing Euro-skeptical feeling within his own party. Major's negativism was often cited by other EU members as the chief reason for the stalled reform talks at the IGC.
But the Noordwijk meeting showed clearly that the EU's problems in agreeing on basic reforms were hardly all John Major's fault. To be sure, Blair showed himself to be more Euro-friendly than Major. Blair promised that he would pursue what he called "a constructive agenda" in the EU, he praised the Union's single market, and he said his government -- unlike Major's -- would join the EU's proposed Social Charter, which protects workers' rights.
But Blair also reaffirmed Britain's refusal to accept planned EU free movement of citizens within member states, calling London's right to maintain national border controls "sacrosanct." He reiterated Britain's long-time opposition to majority, rather than consensus, voting on foreign-policy issues, another key reform proposal put forward by the Dutch and other EU members favoring further integration. He even lectured EU leaders on the need for deregulating rigid continental labor-market strictures, which many analysts hold responsible for the Union's continuing high overall unemployment rate of almost 11 percent. He insisted that principle should be written into Maastricht Two in Amsterdam.
What's more, with no John Major to blame any more, differences among the other 14 EU member states over reform proposals were more apparent than ever before. Ireland, like Britain an island-state, said it too would maintain its own border controls. A Franco-German proposal to re-weight voting procedures in order to streamline collective decision-making in an enlarged Union, which would give more power to the five largest EU states (Britain, Italy and Spain, as well as France and Germany), was opposed by many of the Union's smaller members.
Another joint proposal by France and Germany, the EU's traditional bilateral integration "motor," fared better at Noordwijk. Resolving previous differences on the issue, the two countries suggested capping the number of seats in the EU's Executive Commission at its current level of 20. At Noordwijk, Chancellor Kohl, the Union's most ardent federalist, said the cap would guarantee that small countries would not lose their commissioners for now. But he also said that the number of seats would have to be re-negotiated around 2004, when the term of the next commission expires.
Analysts say that Kohl's remarks amounted to an acknowledgment that Germany, one of the EU's strongest supporters of rapid Eastward expansion, no longer expects most Eastern European candidate nations to enter the Union -- and force institutional reform -- before the middle of the next decade. They also say that the lack of agreement on major issues at Noordwijk is another sign that the EU's enlargement to the East will start later and proceed more slowly than many national leaders -- especially, Kohl and French President Jacques Chirac -- have publicly admitted in the past.
Many analysts and EU officials alike now believe the 15 will sign a Maastricht Two reform treaty in Amsterdam and probably hail it as a success. But in fact the Noordwijk meeting indicated the new treaty is likely largely to be a failure -- a highly watered-down document that defers major reforms for years. If any further proof is needed, Kohl is already talking about Maastricht Three and Four occurring in the 21st century.
At Noordwijk, EU Commission President Jacques Santer called successful enlargement the EU's "biggest challenge in the 21st century -- a true historic chance." The chance, we now know, will come a lot later than had previously been advertised.