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Europe: Euro, Jobs and Enlargement Top Franco-German Summit Agenda

Prague, 18 September 1997 (RFE/RL) - The biannual Franco-German summit meeting that opens this evening in the historic eastern German town of Weimar was originally supposed to be devoted largely to nailing down closer cultural and educational cooperation between the two nations.

The home of Goethe and Schiller was chosen as an appropriate venue for announcing, among other things, the creation of a Franco-German university and a project to make the two nations' high-school and university degrees compatible.

But, to no one's surprise, events have overtaken the original plan. Culture and education are now likely to play a decidedly secondary role at this 70th summit since Konrad Adenauer and Charles de Gaulle signed the friendship treaty binding the two former adversaries in 1963. Urgent political and economic issues now top the agenda for tonight's working dinner between Chancellor Helmut Kohl and the two French Government leaders -- Conservative President Jacques Chirac and Socialist Premier Lionel Jospin-- and for tomorrow's talks among the three leaders. They include aligning the two countries' policies on the coming European Union single currency --the 'euro'-- on a special EU November summit dealing with job creation and, most difficult of all, on how the Union should proceed with its planned enlargement to Central and Eastern Europe.

French and German officials and analysts agree that Kohl's relations with Jospin have improved since the two had a cool meeting three months ago in France, only weeks after early elections called by Chirac brought the Socialists to power. The Chancellor, who sets great store on politicians' reliability, is said now to regard Jospin as straight, honorable and reliable. It is an open secret in Bonn, however, that he and other high German officials view Chirac as erratic and unpredictable, with the President's decision to call the elections seen as only the last of a series of quixotic actions that began with the resumption of French nuclear testing in 1995.

Since it is Jospin who seems increasingly to dominate France's "cohabitation" government, the warming of his personal relation with Kohl is politically important. That is likely to be demonstrated in Weimar by a public meeting of minds on prospects and conditions for launching the EU's Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) in less than 16 months.

Jospin took office after promising to change conditions for the euro's creation, but he has modified his own position considerably since the Spring election campaign. With France's long-stagnant economy now showing signs of growth, he now knows it is likely that his country --as well as Germany-- will be able to meet one of the chief targets of his election rhetoric, the critical EMU public-deficit target of three percent of Gross National Product. He has also dropped his previous hostility to a German-sponsored stability pact to guarantee strict adherence to this and other EMU criteria from EU members adopting the euro at the start of 1999.

Kohl has had his own euro problems recently from skeptics within Germany's conservative camp. Over the past few months, some high officials and bankers have called for postponing EMU's creation and questioned whether the euro will be as strong as Germany's mark. The same view is shared by a majority of the German people -- 60 percent according to the most recent poll. But a statement two days ago agreed to by all the partners in Kohl's Right-Center coalition government indicated the Chancellor has effectively silenced the critics, at least for the moment. The statement said flatly that "there is no reason to postpone EMU (and the fear of its being weak) is without foundation."

Franco-German accord on job creation in an EU with a double-digit (10.5 percent) unemployment rate will be more difficult to achieve at Weimar. After taking office four months ago, Jospin rattled German conservatives with a call for concerted EU action to reduce unemployment. Then, at the Union's mid-June Amsterdam summit, he made EU acceptance of France's proposal for the special summit on jobs a condition for accepting the EMU stability pact backed strongly by Bonn. Over the summer, Jospin seems to have accepted Germany's firm rejection of new EU money for job programs. But there are still wide divergences between France's interventionist approach to job creation and Germany's rejection of substantial EU-wide initiatives.

The biggest problem between the two countries remains their differences over whether to give priority to EU expansion to the East or to the basic internal reforms needed to make that enlargement possible. On Monday France, Italy and Belgium formally submitted a paper to their 12 EU partners stressing the need for further internal changes and deepening ties within the Union before taking in any of the 10 Eastern candidate states. The paper was said to have been backed as well by four other EU members -- Austria, Luxembourg, Sweden and Finland. It was strongly opposed by Germany, which doesn't want any new preconditions on the start of membership talks set for early next year.

The stakes for Central and Easter Europe in this dispute are large. If the views of what are reported to be nearly half the current EU members are adopted, there could very be a postponement in the enlargement calendar -- already called into question by a dispute earlier this week over which countries will finance the expansion. At Amsterdam, the 15 showed themselves incapable of reaching accord on basic internal reforms, and there is no reason to believe consensus is likely be achieved in the near future. So if "deepening" is given priority over "widening" the Union, Eastern candidates may be kept waiting far longer than they have expected.

Much will depend on whether France and Germany, the EU's traditional bilateral "motor," can resolve their differences today and tomorrow. But their divergant views over the job summit and, particularly, enlargement show that --despite the warm-up between Jospin and Kohl-- the partnership lacks its previous dynamism. In the words of one analyst: "France and Germany have agreed they cannot afford to damage the motor of European integration. They have yet to show that they can drive it forward."