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European Union: Which Was the Real EU Show in Brussels?

Brussels, 1 April 1998 (RFE/RL) -- There were two dramas going on at once yesterday, within the European Union (EU) headquarters in Brussels. Their proximity symbolized the difficulties the 15 countries of Western Europe will have in transforming themselves into a pan-European organization in the next several years. It was hard to determine which was the main show, and which was the sideshow.

In one area, the EU began substantive membership talks with Cyprus and five Eastern European states: the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Poland and Hungary. In six, separate inaugural conferences, top EU and applicant-state officials used the same language to characterize the event: "historic." "The end of the artificial division of Europe," "a single united continent." The day before, five other Eastern applicant states - deemed not yet qualified to begin substantive talks, but promised ultimate membership: Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania and Slovakia; had employed similar rhetoric.

In another area of EU headquarters close by, EU farm ministers met to discuss proposals to reform the bloc's costly common agricultural policy (CAP), which all agree must be changed in order for enlargement to proceed harmoniously. It was their debate that was televised internally to a large group of interested citizens, who frequently shouted emotional comments. Outside, two groups of Italian and Irish farmers - among the EU agricultural policy's biggest beneficiaries - demonstrated their opposition to any major reductions in farm subsidies.

The contrast between the EU officials' good intentions and the resistance by many of their own ordinary citizens was stark. Asked to comment on the difference, Poland's Foreign Minister Bronislaw Geremek said he was sure that, once the problems of reform and expansion was properly explained to public opinion within the EU, the threat to enlargement would disappear. Geremek added, "politicians think generally of the next election, while statesmen think in large terms."

Far from all officials in the EU are as optimistic as Geremek. Many of them believe that politicians, by their very nature, have no choice but to be primarily concerned with the next election. That explains, they say, why EU national politicians have been unable to persuade their citizens of the need to reduce both the EU's common agricultural policy, and regional-funding programs, which eat up more than 80 percent of the EU annual budget. It also explains, the politicians admit, the EU's failure, so far, to agree on how to finance expansion, and how to re-fashion critical voting arrangements for an enlarged EU.

Judging by their public language in Brussels yesterday and Monday, many top officials in the East have still failed to grasp this basic reality in Western Europe. Monday, the Foreign Ministers of the ten Eastern applicants, as well as EU Foreign Ministers, all insisted on the historic character of the enlargement process. They said they believed the process would bring about a continent-wide zone of peace and prosperity that Europe had never yet been able to realize. Romania's Foreign Minister Andrei Plesu, a writer before entering government, spoke of Europe's "passionate undertaking to re-establish its lost status," without specifying when the continent has attained such a status before.

The same day, Slovenia's Foreign Minister Boris Frlec spoke in the same rhetorical vein, which seemed to reflect little understanding of today's Western European realities. Frlec told his colleagues from East and West that it was, "particularly encouraging to see European states, with very strong national traditions, find it both acceptable and beneficial to share their sovereignty with other nations."

Poland's Foreign Minister Geremek went even further Monday. He said Poland fully intends to integrate itself into the enlargement process as a full partner of the Union. "Our principle," Geremek declared, "is that nothing should be decided without us."

There was a sense of the unreal about all this. Had Frlec, Geremek and their Eastern colleagues taken time to listen to the agricultural debate going on at the same time as their own ceremonies? Had they not heard the angry shouts of EU citizens inside, and EU demonstrators outside, the headquarters? Had they not finally asked themselves the key question: which was the main EU show and which was the sideshow?