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1998 In Review: Germany Faces Problems As EU President

Munich, 14 December 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Germany takes over the chairmanship of the European Union in January when the organization is at a major turning point.

Simply put, the European Union is about to overhaul many of its institutions and adjust some of its financial arrangements. Some of the changes are considered essential if the EU is to expand and admit new members from Central Europe.

But recognizing that changes need to be made and establishing a timetable to put them into effect are two different things. Some of the EU's 15 members want speedy change while others would prefer to delay them for the time being.

Germany's new Chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, would like to complete the reforms -- known as Agenda 2000 -- during Germany's six months as chairman. He has suggested March as a target date. But this is scorned by many commentators who believe the most important problems are so controversial that it will take a great deal longer to achieve the necessary compromises.

One commentator said hoping to find a rapid solution was like "hoping to find the end of a rainbow."

The wish list of various members and EU organizations is long. It includes Germany's continuing demand that its contribution to the EU budget should be cut.

Then there are demands by several countries for changes in the European Union's costly farm support program. Chancellor Schroeder argues that national governments should assume more of the burden. But France, which receives a larger share of farm subsidies than any other member, rejects any reduction as "politically unacceptable".

There are long-outstanding political problems to be solved. Among them is the search for a common European foreign and defense policy. This has long been a dream of the strongest supporters of a deeper European Union but it has always foundered on objections by others, particularly Britain.

A related problem is the question of appointing a spokesman for Europe in times of crisis. The United States has long complained that if an international crisis develops there is no single individual that the U.S. secretary of state can contact to learn the "European position." Instead the U.S. and other powers must contact each individual member of the European Union. Germany would like to resolve this problem during its chairmanship but national jealousies may continue to frustrate its hopes.

The introduction of new members from Central and Eastern Europe will also be a central issue in Germany's chairmanship of the E.U. At a meeting in early December Schroeder and the French President Jacques Chirac affirmed their continuing support for the expansion of the EU. But political commentators noted that they did not set any dates and emphasized that expansion could not take place until the EU completes its reforms.

(Third of a series of three articles on the European Union.)