Berlin, 23 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The special summit of European Union leaders opening in Berlin tomorrow (Wednesday) is likely to represent a defining moment in European affairs.
Current EU president Germany originally called the two-day summit to finalize deep internal reforms of the union to open the way for eastward enlargement.
Achieving this reform package -- the most profound ever undertaken by the union -- will be difficult enough. But extra pressure has been put on the summit by unfolding events.
One is the dramatic collapse this month of the EU's Executive Commission amid charges of mismanagement and corruption. This leaves the EU bureaucracy practically rudderless, and urgent decisions are required on who will take over the commission.
Second, the summit will be occurring amid the possibility of international military conflict in the Balkans, a prospect that grows ever larger as NATO powers demand that Yugoslavia do more for peace in Kosovo.
Furthermore, the man who has the task of steering the summit is recently elected German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who has little experience in the international arena and whose leadership abilities are under fire.
If the Berlin summit crumbles under these multiple pressures, and is seen to fail, the message to the world will be that the EU is not yet capable of acting in unison -- and is therefore unlikely to gain increased international political stature any time soon.
Success in Berlin, on the other hand, will demonstrate that the union can overcome its difficulties and is building further on the credit gained through the launch of the single euro currency at the start of this year.
The task lies with Schroeder to keep the summit focused. Press reports have suggested that the subject of who will replace EU Commission President Jacques Santer could occupy much of the summit's attention. The person chosen for this key post must have the confidence of all 15-member states. That is no easy matter when national rivalries are taken into account.
Schroeder, however -- speaking at a Brussels press conference last week -- showed a firm intention to stick to the reform agenda and not be diverted by the Santer affair:
"I want to make clear that the reform agenda already set for Berlin is not the sort of thing that can be decided in an off-hand way. I don't want that agenda to be placed in question because we will be discussing other events, even though it goes without saying that we will talk about those developments in a subsidiary way." German officials have said a separate, informal summit will be called soon, dedicated to the replacement of the outgoing EU Commission.
At another point in the Brussels press conference, the German chancellor indicated he knows what is at stake in Berlin and that Europe is being tested.
"The term 'crisis' has been used, everybody regrets this, but I don't want to dramatize the situation. Europe is capable of handling its affairs, and I believe I will show that in Berlin. The need to demonstrate our capabilities is now greater than before, and I'm sure the other heads of state and government will see the matter that way, and that they will show the necessary will to compromise."
Of course, Schroeder's message is doubled-edged in that it is also meant to exert pressure on his fellow leaders to make the sort of progress Germany wants to see crown its presidency of the EU. But progress won't be easy. Final agreement needs to be reached on reform of the expensive common agricultural policy (CAP). Farm ministers earlier this month worked out a package that achieves a measure of reform in that it would cut the unrealistically high support prices for grain and beef, as well as milk. But the savings to the EU budget would come toward the end of the period in question, namely 2000 to 2006. In the meantime, the CAP will cost even more than it does now.
Another key unresolved issue is the structural and cohesion funds now being paid to the four poorer members of the present EU. These funds should be severely cut back to make room for similar payments to the incoming easterners. But Spain in particular is adamant that it must continue to receive the special aid.
Yet another seemingly unresolvable problem is the German demand for relief from being the EU's paymaster. Germany is by far the biggest net contributor to the EU budget, and it says it cannot continue in that role in view of the burden imposed by incorporation of the former East Germany.
That's the agenda -- an agenda complicated enough without the addition of extra problems. For such a summit, Berlin seems to provide the perfect setting -- a city with its own complicated and often tortured history throughout this century