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EU: Ministers To Sign Enlargement Treaty Today--An Analysis

Prague, 2 October 1997 (RFE/RL) - Amid growing doubts about the European Union's collective will to expand to Central and Eastern Europe, foreign ministers of its 15 member states today gathered in Amsterdam to sign a treaty originally intended to prepare the bloc for enlargement.

But the document is now acknowledged by many to have fallen far short of easing entry for the 10 Eastern candidates, plus Cyprus, eagerly seeking admission. And its failings are only the start of the EU's current expansion problems.

The Amsterdam Treaty was the product of two long days and nights of often bad-tempered summit negotiations in the Dutch capital three months ago. The EU's leaders did manage to agree on lifting internal border controls, closer police cooperation, EU-wide visa and asylum policies, and a new planning and analysis unit for guiding the Union's fledgling foreign policy.

But they failed to achieve consensus on the basic internal structural reforms needed to expand to almost double the EU's present size. In a deal clinched in the early hours of June 18, all the key issues relating to the balance of power between large and small states in EU decision-making -- notably, changing the size of its Executive Commission and re-weighting voting among members -- were left unresolved.

Ten days later, and again in Amsterdam, EU officials met with the leaders of the 11 candidate nations and assured them that the summit's failure to agree on internal reforms would not delay their joining. At the time, the assurances seemed barely credible. Many analysts now shrug them off as rhetoric and regard the treaty, in the phrase of one of them (Lionel Barber in today's "Financial Times"), as "a mere footnote in history."

It is difficult to imagine today how the failure at Amsterdam will not lead to delays in enlargement. The latest piece of evidence of increasing divisiveness within the 15 is a declaration, annexed to the treaty signed today, by France, Italy and Belgium warning their partners that no new members will be allowed to join before the outstanding institutional questions are resolved. The tripartite statement, although not legally binding, probably means that the EU will have to hold a new inter-governmental conference (IGC) before any additional members are taken in. An earlier IGC, wrapped up at the Amsterdam summit, took 15 months to produce the draft text of a weak treaty, despite a full year of preparatory work by senior officials.

Another potential barrier to candidate states' aspirations are a series of rows among members during the summer over how enlargement is to be financed. In its mid-July "Agenda 2000" document, the EU's Executive Commission advised member states that expansion would mean a greater financial burden for most of them. Almost immediately, many members began showing signs of cold feet on (that is, lack of enthusiasm for) expansion.

Germany and the Netherlands, the two biggest net contributors to the EU's collective budget, demanded a reduction in their payments after the Union's current financing accord expires in 1999. Their stand was ardently resisted by "poor" members like Greece, Portugal and -- especially -- Spain, which fear that the result of bringing in much poorer countries from the East will cut into the huge subsidies they currently receive from Brussels. The three countries insist that the $34 billion they now receive annually from the EU be continued indefinitely.

All this divisiveness over expansion seems likely to grow in the run-up to the EU's scheduled summit in Luxembourg in mid-December. At that meeting, the 15 must decide on which Central and East European countries the EU will begin membership talks next year. The Commission's Agenda 2000 recommended starting talks with only five of the 10 -- the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Poland and Slovenia. But members are known to have differing views on the matter. Germany, for instance, wants only the Czechs, Hungarians and Poles to be in the first membership wave. Sweden and Denmark would like the other two Baltic states to be among those included.

Among the 15 today, views about expansion could hardly be more different. That is a reality that cannot be gainsaid by today's show of unity in Amsterdam.