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EU: Amsterdam Leaves Uncertain Prospects For Union's Expansion

Prague, 19 June 1997 (RFE/RL) - The European Union's Amsterdam summit earlier this week had one giant failure and a few modest successes. Both the failure and the successes make prospects for the EU's planned expansion to Central and Eastern Europe now seem more uncertain than ever before.

The leaders of the EU's 15 member states were unable to agree on the fundamental institutional reforms necessary for its enlargement. That was Amsterdam's biggest failure. It was a huge one, because the summit's chief stated goal was to cap two years of inter-governmental talks with an accord on basic reforms. Instead, Amsterdam ended up with no agreement on the critical changes needed --except to defer most of them until enlargement actually begins.

Among the summit's minor successes, the most important was its resolution, at least for the time being, of a disruptive and dangerous dispute between France and Germany over criteria for membership in the EU's European Monetary Union (EMU). Defusing that crisis put the Union's proposed single currency, the "euro," on a straight course for its launching in 18 months. Amsterdam also extended the EU's concerns to more active engagement in social, environmental and employment affairs. And, of course, it endorsed the idea of expansion to almost twice the Union's present number of 15 members.

The summit's formal endorsement of enlargement triggered a process whose short-term calendar is clear but whose long-term results are very unclear. In the short run, the EU will begin membership negotiations within the next six to nine months with some of the 10 Eastern candidate states --Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia. How many will be invited to be part of the first wave of new members should be known well before then, however. In four weeks (July 16), the EU's Executive Commission is due to make public its opinions on which Eastern nations are ready to join Cyprus in the initial round of membership talks.

In Amsterdam, officials and analysts were divided in their views on how many Eastern nations would be found eligible by the Commission. One group held that only three Central European countries would receive the Commission's blessing. They are the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland, the same three that almost certainly will be asked to join NATO at the Alliance's Madrid summit early next month (July 7-8). Those holding this view cited, among other evidence, the fact that German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, still the EU's most important political leader, has made clear he favors only these three in the first wave of entrants.

But another group of officials and analysts believed that the Commission would find five Eastern nations eligible to begin talks --the three Central European nations plus Slovenia and Estonia, both of whose economies are almost as advanced as theirs. This group said that the Commission was unlikely to give the impression to the world that the EU was blindly following NATO's example. They also pointed to the fact that the Amsterdam treaty called for another round of talks on institutional reforms when the group contained 20 members.

Whatever the number of candidates blessed by the Commission, it will of course be up to current EU members to decide which nations are first invited. And that's where the long-term uncertainty about enlargement prospects begins. Will the 15 be able to achieve the same degree of political cohesion it has shown on EMU? The two days and one long night of deliberations at Amsterdam strongly suggest the contrary. Throughout the meeting national agendas, rather than multinational considerations, determined the outcomes of critical debates --most notably, the failure to endorse reformed structures capable of managing a larger Union.

It is the single currency, not enlargement, that is likely to absorb much of the EU's energies for at least the next year-and-a-half. What's more, to prepare properly for expansion, the Union must somehow reform its Common Agricultural Policy and regional funding. These two contentious areas together make up close to two-thirds of the EU's budget and are so sensitive they were not even put on the Amsterdam agenda.

So many reforms still to be achieved and so little collective will to do so --that, in a nutshell, is where the EU is today. After Amsterdam's failure, few observers believe the Union can achieve all the necessary reforms in tandem with enlargement. Britain's pro-EU "Financial Times" wrote today: "It will be a miracle if the result is not to prolong (the enlargement process), probably to the point where would-be members begin seriously to question whether the EU is a club worth joining at all."