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EU: Leftist Leaders Meet To Rejoice And Worry

Copenhagen, 5 June 1997 (RFE/RL) - Socialist and social democrat leaders from across the 15 nations of the European Union are gathering in the southern Swedish city of Malmoe for a 48-hour meeting today and tomorrow. According to most observers, they will have as much to rejoice as to worry about.

Recent electoral victories in Britain and in France have increased the number of Left-ruled EU states to an unprecedented level. Today, only Germany and Spain do not have socialists or social democrats either as their heads of governments or as senior coalition partners.

Britain's social democrat Tony Blair and France's socialist Lionel Jospin will be the undisputed celebrities in Malmoe. Jospin will arrive in Sweden's third largest city late this afternoon. This morning, his new government held its first meeting, presided over by conservative President Jacques Chirac.

In the view of some commentators, however, the resuscitation of West European socialism and social democracy from what not long ago seemed like a stone-dead corpse may be overshadowed by disputes among the leaders over urgent current issues. Those issues include, most notably, the increasingly shaky future of the European Monetary Union (EMU) and the high level (over 10 percent) of unemployment throughout the EU.

Earlier this week, Prime Minister Goran Persson -- himself a Social Democrat presiding over a minority government in Stockholm -- declared Sweden will not join EMU for the time being. He said that prospects for the introduction in 19 months of the new single currency, to be known as the "euro," were uncertain and shaky. He also said the euro was extremely unpopular in his country, attested to by all recent polls.

Reactions in the EU to the Swedish announcement varied from the quietly smug to the blatantly outraged. Member states like Britain and Denmark, who have already "opted out" of joining EMU -- at least in the first wave of eligible countries scheduled for early 1999 -- welcomed what they regard as a gust of realism in the current euro-fever elsewhere in the Union. But EU Executive Commission President Jacques Santer said Stockholm could not refuse to join EMU because it had not negotiated an opt-out previously, as have both London and Copenhagen. Another senior EU official went declared that no member state had the right to withdraw unilaterally from previously agreed EU plans.

There is also growing conflict over EMU in both Germany and France, two major pillars of the Union. Chancellor Helmut Kohl has recently attempted to bring his country's finances in line with the EU's strict criteria for EMU eligibility through blatant juggling of its financial ledgers. His proposal to revalue Germany's gold reserves upward by as much as $10 billion brought a swift rebuke from the nation's independent central bank. The much-respected Bundesbank forced the Chancellor to put off what analysts call his "creative accounting" until next year, after the selection of EMU's first members. And new French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin recent controversial calls for interpreting EMU-eligibility criteria in what he termed more "flexible" terms are expected to preoccupy many in Malmoe.

Another bone of contention at the meeting will be how to tackle unemployment, an issue traditionally viewed by Left parties as having priority over almost any other EU project. But critics say that Tony Blair and others Left leaders' plans to introduce a so-called employment chapter in the new EU treaty due to be agreed upon at summit meeting in Amsterdam in 11 days (June 16-17) may in fact serve to force more people out of work than increase job prospects.

Because the employment situation differs radically from state to state and region to region within the EU, it is unlikely that the Left leaders meeting in Malmoe will find a common solution to their varying problems, which have little in common other than their appearance. In addition, the gathering in Malmoe is only a consultative one, not expected to take any decisions. But with socialists and social democrats now calling the tune in much of the EU, whatever they come up with in Malmoe will still have to be taken seriously.