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EU: Luxembourg Assumes Presidency During Critical Expansion Period

Prague, 1 July 1997 (RFE/RL) - At European Union headquarters in Brussels this morning, a small group of Luxembourg Government officials took up residence in the offices the EU provides for its revolving presidency. Thus, without ceremony, the 15-nation EU's smallest member state took over as president for a critical half-year period during which final preparations will be made for the organization's planned enlargement to the East.

Between now and the end of the year, the tiny Grand Duchy of Luxembourg -- to cite its full nam e-- will be responsible for setting the EU's international as well as domestic agenda. That means that a country of 2,586 square kilometers and a population of 413,000 --compared to 357,000 square kilometers and 80 million for Germany, the EU's most populous member -- will be in charge of preparing the Union for its coming expansion.

Eleven countries are now candidate states, Cyprus and 10 former Communist nations in Central and Eastern Europe: Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia. (Turkey is considered to be what the EU calls an "applicant" rather than candidate nation, and therefore ineligible for immediate membership talks.)

It also means that for six months, two of the EU's three principal organs will be headed by Luxembourgers. Former Luxembourg Prime Minister Jacques Santer has been President of the Union's Executive Commission for exactly half of a five-year term. Now, Santer will be joined by his successor, Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, who will head up the Union's decision-making Council of Ministers. The third important EU branch is its popularly elected Parliament, now headed by Spain's Jose-Maria Gil-Robles.

Luxembourg, one of the original six founders of the European Community (EC) -- out of which the Union later evolved -- has played a role far larger in the organization's affairs than its size would suggest. It is home to both the EU's European Court of Justice --which, along with the European Parliament, was recently granted expanded powers -- and the European Coal and Steel Community, an important EC forerunner that will soon cease to exist as an independent entity.

Throughout the EU's four decades of history, in fact, federalist-minded Luxembourg has periodically provided competent, and sometimes more than competent, leadership as Western Europe moved steadily toward further internal integration.

In the past several years, however, the Union's integrationist momentum has stilled, and one of Juncker's biggest tasks during the next six months will be to put it motion again. He will have to do so while at the same time bringing the Union to a point where membership talks with the 11 candidates can begin early next year, as Brussels has repeatedly promised.

The only area is which the EU today is capable of further integration is economic and monetary union (EMU). So the Luxembourg Presidency's first priority will be to keep EMU on course for its planned launching in 18 months. In a magazine interview this week, Juncker ruled out any delay in introducing EMU's new single currency, the euro, even though France and Germany are at odds over the conditions for joining and remaining in the monetary union.

Whatever the problems with the euro, Luxembourg knows that its presidency will, in the phrase of another of its high officials, "be dominated by one big subject --enlargement." In a speech in Brussels yesterday, Luxembourg permanent representative to the EU Jean-Jacques Kasel said that said that his country must work out a suitable method for proceeding with enlargement talks. Its biggest problem will be to decide whether to recommend that negotiations begin simultaneously with all 11 candidates, or only with the three to four of them which are closest to meeting EU standards for admission.

In Amsterdam Friday, at a meeting with top EU officials, a narrow majority of Central and East European candidates asked that talks with all of them begin at the same time. But the four Central European nations which are considered the most likely to join the Union first sometime in the next decade -- the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovenia -- were not of that view and made up an influential minority.

The crucial decision on Eastern candidates will be taken, ultimately, by consensus among the 15 at Luxembourg's end-of-the-presidency summit on December 15. Then Luxembourg will hand over its job -- no doubt with a sign of relief -- to Britain, whose new Labor Government will manage EU affairs during the even more critical period of 1988's first six months. That's when EMU candidates will be selected and talks will actually begin with some or all of the 11 candidate states.