Prague, 9 December 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Leaders of the European Union hold their end-of-year summit in Vienna this weekend (Dec. 11-12).
The setting, the city's opulent Hofburg palace, is redolent of history. But the subjects under discussion are the burning issues facing the Europe of today and tomorrow -- how to create more jobs, how to proceed with a successful eastward expansion, and how to come to grips with internal EU reform.
As a gesture toward the impatient states seeking EU membership, the summit will feature a working lunch Saturday with the heads of government and foreign ministers of the 10 Central and Eastern European applicant countries, plus Cyprus.
Turkey, which has long aspired to EU membership but which has not been accepted as a formal candidate, has not been invited -- a decision which is sure to further anger Ankara.
The working lunch will be the first opportunity for the leaders east and west to discuss the reports on applicants' progress issued last month by the EU's Executive Commission. Those assessments confirmed that five East European countries remain in the front running group for membership -- Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, and Estonia. The summit could decide to immediately expand that group, for instance to include Latvia, a second-rank applicant singled out for praise in the progress reports. But an official close to the EU Council of Ministers, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told RFE/RL that such surprises are not likely.
The lunch will also give the easterners a fresh opportunity to tell the EU heads of state or government that they believe enlargement is going too slowly. Hungary and Poland have been particularly critical. Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban said last week (Dec. 1) that it is impossible for the applicant countries to prepare properly for membership unless they have a clear timetable from the EU. This, the EU members are unwilling or unable to give. The official close to the EU Council of Ministers acknowledged the reluctance of a number of EU members to set any firm dates, on the grounds that the union must make progress with long-delayed internal reforms before it can offer any certainty to the newcomers.
Estonia's Ambassador to the EU, Clyde Kull, put it this way:
"The question is that now we (the candidate states) are coming closer to possible accession, and of course accession will have a quite serious impact on the EU itself. This makes the enlargement process for present members a more sensitive issue. They are looking more seriously at all the issues related to enlargement. But there have been no doubts expressed on the actual principle of enlargement."
The question of internal reforms, as recommended last year in the EU Executive Commission's "Agenda 2000" document, are at the heart of the coming summit. The EU official said Vienna "is to see where we stand" on reform, and to refine the issues ahead of a special summit to be held next March under the German EU presidency. The official said there have been many bilateral contacts between member states on these issues in the run-up to Vienna. Achieving reform is a major undertaking with potential to put the EU into crisis. It involves changing the highly subsidized Common Agricultural Policy, which consumes some $45 billion annually, close to half the entire EU budget. Farmers in France, the major beneficiary, as well as in smaller members like Ireland, are opposed to changes which would reduce their incomes.
Another key dispute is over the EU budget, and the size of national contributions to it. Germany is by far the biggest net payer, contributing more than half the union's income. But it says it can no longer afford to hand out so much. Other members show no sign of wanting to pick up the bill. Britain for one is adamant that it will not give up a $2 billion annual rebate granted in 1984.
Still another problem is reforming the structural adjustment funds to poorer members like Greece, Spain and Portugal. Spain in particular says it has no intention of sacrificing these funds in favor of new members.
Apart from enlargement and reform, another major theme in Vienna will be how to cut Europe's high joblessness, which averages nearly 10 percent across the 15 members. The European Commission has assembled a big package of job creation recommendations which it will put before the summit.
An unscheduled issue, which could well feature in the summit discussions, is that of Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Turkey wants Italy, which arrested Ocalan last month, to extradite him to face terrorism charges. But Italy refuses to send Ocalan to Turkey, which has the death penalty. Italian and German officials have discussed bringing Ocalan before a European or international tribunal.
Noting this, a senior Turkish diplomat in Brussels, speaking to RFE/RL on condition of anonymity, accused Italy of trying to expand the affair from a bilateral disagreement to a row between the whole EU and Ankara. He said the Ocalan case had further harmed already-strained relations between Turkey and the EU.