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EU: Meeting With Eastern Leaders Is Constructive

Amsterdam, 27 June 1997 (RFE/RL) - Today's meeting in Amsterdam between top European Union officials and leaders of 12 nations seeking early EU membership served one great constructive purpose: It put into proper perspective the EU's failure, at its summit in the Dutch capital earlier this month , to agree on basic institutional reforms necessary before the 15-nation organization can actually begin its planned process of enlargement.

The summit's inability to reach agreement on new power-sharing arrangements for an EU that could almost double in size within a decade came in for heavy criticism from both Western officials and commentators. Many said the summit's failure had to delay its enlargement, and some argued that without refurbished institutions in place, the EU simply could not expand without collapsing. But according to the participants, those criticisms and ominous predictions played only a small role in the three hours of talk this morning.

The discussions were led by Prime Minister Wim Kok of the Netherlands, which holds the Union's presidency until Tuesday, and Jacques Santer , President of the EU'S Executive Commission. They involved as well high officials --for the most part, prime and foreign ministers-- of 10 Central and East European candidate nations, plus Cyprus and Turkey. All agreed that the issue of the summit's failure to reach accord on internal structural reforms would, in the end, not delay its plans to enlarge, primarily to the East.

Speaking to reporters after the talks, Kok was little short of vehement on the subject. Clearly irritated at negative reports about the summit, Kok insisted there was still time for the EU to agree on needed reforms because enlargement won't take place for years. He went on to say that the 15 had actually agreed in principle at the summit on the necessity of reforming the EU's institutions before expanding, and that it only remained to find the proper "technical means" for enacting the reforms. Kok also said that it was what he called "inconceivable" that, when the enlargement negotiations are finished, "the EU will become a delaying factor because it has not done its own job."

At the same news briefing, Dutch Foreign Minister Hans van Mierlo said the Amsterdam spat over re-allocating votes for EU members was what he described as "greatly exaggerated." He said that issue pales in comparison with the financial difficulties that lie ahead as the EU starts taking in relatively poor newcomers.

Van Mierlo was referring to coming EU attempts to reform its Common Agricultural Policy, which eats up one-half of its $100 billion budget, and its so-called structural or regional funding, which accounts for another quarter of its budget in pay-outs to poorer member states. Both these reforms must be enacted to make the EU financially able to take in new and even poorer members. And compared to these painful reforms yet to be grappled with, both Dutch officials indicated, the failure of the EU summit to agree on new voting and power-sharing arrangements was relatively minor.

That's not quite the way some Eastern officials saw the issue. Latvian Prime Minister Andris Skele said that the treaty agreed upon at Amsterdam actually created an incentive for the first wave of enlargement to be kept to a maximum of five states. That's because any more than five will now mean there are more member states than seats on the European Commission, forcing a review of the EU executive's role Skele said this would intensify competition among candidate states to be in the first five and help spur the process of reform. But he added, "I'm not entirely convinced it is the most efficient way to further develop the EU member states' relations with their Eastern partners."

It is not surprising then that Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania and Slovakia -- which are all expected to be made to wait until a second or third wave of enlargement -- lobbied hard today for EU membership negotiations to begin simultaneously with all candidates. But countries that have made most progress in adapting to EU norms, including Estonia and Hungary, said they would prefer a differentiated approach. The European Commission is also known to be in favor of a line being drawn early on and is likely to reflect this when it publishes its opinion on the candidate countries' readiness to join in the middle of next month.

Along with Estonia and Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovenia were seen in Amsterdam today as the favorites for early membership. All of them are in the leading group in terms of internal reform and can count on strong backing from existing EU members: Italy for Slovenia, the nordic states for Estonia, and Germany for the other three. Some Eastern officials complained privately that Chancellor Helmut Kohl seemed determined to hold the EU's first wave of entrants to the same three Central European nations likely to be chosen for first admission to NATO --the Czechs, the Poles and the Hungarians.

All in all, for a meeting that was said by many to be held in a pessimistic atmosphere, today's talks put a number of important enlargement issues into a more balanced perspective. We now know more clearly than ever before that internal structural reforms are not the EU's only big headache --it has to change its expansive agricultural and regional-funding policies if it is to remain solvent during expansion. So, compared to the problem of financing enlargement, institutional reform may turn out to be less important than it seemed at the summit. That's an important rectification, and perhaps justification enough for bringing the leaders of 12 candidate nations to Amsterdam for three hours of talk --and a parting lunch with Holland's Queen Juliana.