Supporters of a strong European Union are reviving an old debate on whether a united Europe should have two groups. One would consist of an inner core of the EU's six founding members and move quickly toward further internal integration. Other EU countries, plus candidate-members from Eastern Europe, would make up the second group, which would move more slowly toward full integration. RFE/RL correspondent Roland Eggleston reports on the debate.
Munich, 28 April 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The debate on a two-level Europe is closely connected with growing complaints in Western Europe that plans to include new members from the former Eastern bloc have gone ahead too quickly. Experts in some EU countries argue that several Central and East European candidates are lagging behind in instituting the reforms necessary to meet EU standards. They believe that few, if any, East European countries will be able to enter the union in 2003, as was originally planned.
Their criticisms are strengthened by a report issued by German business leaders earlier this week that recommends that the process of EU eastward expansion should be slowed down. A joint statement by Germany's Chamber of Commerce and the Chamber of Industry said that "quality is more important than speed."
Some experts now believe 2006 or even later is a more realistic date for the entry of a first group of candidates -- Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Estonia, and Slovenia, plus Cyprus. This would inevitably mean that the entry of the second group -- which includes Malta as well as Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, Lithuania, and Latvia -- would be delayed till even later.
Government officials in Berlin say this uneasiness about Eastern Europe is coupled with a strong feeling in France and Germany that some present EU members are either reluctant or unable to move quickly toward the full political and social -- as well as economic -- integration of Europe. Some of them -- notably, Britain, Sweden and Denmark -- are believed to be politically reluctant to move forward too quickly, while others would have to struggle to meet the necessary integration criteria.
An official at the German Foreign Ministry -- who asked not to be identified -- said all this has led to a feeling of impatience in top government circles in Berlin and Paris. There is, in the official's words, "a strong feeling in both capitals that a core of countries should move ahead more rapidly and that the others should catch up when they can." Germany's view, he added, was that this core should consist of the six founding EU members -- France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg -- which would be the driving force in pushing through the economic and political integration of Europe.
Earlier this month, the idea was publicly proposed by former French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing and former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, the two men credited with paving the way for EU monetary union in the 1970s. They jointly called on the EU's founding members -- and as many others as wished to join them -- to forge ahead in the creation of a federation, while those unable to do so would form an outer group in the EU.
At the same time, similar views have been publicized in Germany by the widely read "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" newspaper in an effort to encourage a public debate. The paper has published several articles in the past weeks arguing in favor of a two-level Europe. And the French daily "Le Monde" recently carried an article along similar lines by former EU Executive Commission President Jacques Delors.
German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder discussed a possible delay in the entry of East European states when he met Polish Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek yesterday in the Polish city of Giezno.
Speaking to the press later, Schroeder described himself as an "advocate" of rapid EU entry for Poland. But he declined to comment on when Poland would actually qualify to enter, saying attaining membership standards was an internal Polish matter:
"It is Poland's task to meet the standards required for entry. That is Poland's internal affair. This being so, it is not a good idea for outsiders to set dates for Poland, because this could create the impression that we are not satisfied with Polish efforts."
German officials said EU membership problems were also discussed today (Friday) when Schroeder and Buzek meet with the Hungarian, Czech, and Slovak prime ministers in Giezno.
In talks with our correspondent, German and French officials gave several reasons for the current renewed debate over expansion. Prominent among them was the slow pace of reform in some of the candidate countries But the officials acknowledged there were also problems within the EU itself.
At a December summit meeting last year, the EU agreed that it could not expand until it reformed its basic structures. The reforms include allowing many more important decisions to be reached by majority vote rather than by the present system of unanimity. A re-weighting of the votes of more populous countries -- such as Germany and France -- to offset greater voting rights given to smaller members is also essential.
These and other changes are supposed to be approved at an EU summit meeting in France this December. They are due to be submitted to the 15 member-state parliaments for approval by the end of 2002 -- that is, before any of the present 12 candidate countries actually enter the EU.
But reports in both the German and French media say the preliminary negotiations within the EU, which began two months ago, are not going well. Britain, Sweden, and Denmark are said to be particularly reluctant to accept some of the proposed reforms. That has led some analysts to express gloom about the prospects for accord before the critical end-of-the-year summit.
The debate in Germany on the timetable for EU eastward expansion has been enlivened by a study published last month (in March) by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, a foundation associated with the governing Social Democratic Party led by Chancellor Schroeder. The study examined both the advantages and dangers that would accompany early admission of East European candidates. It concluded that the best strategy would be to wait until 2006, which is what many other experts have been proposing.
But in a new departure, the foundation also suggested that the EU should then accept only eight, not 12, candidates. Presumably, the eight would include the six in the front-running group, and only two of the five eastern nations now waiting for the second round of enlargement -- Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, Lithuania, and Latvia. The study did not suggest which two of these might be included.
German analysts say that Poland has a special place in the expansion debate because it has special geopolitical significance in Europe and has made great efforts to implement economic reform. But the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung study concluded that 2003 would be too early for Poland to enter the EU and urged later membership.
Other analysts, in France as well as Germany, have also suggested 2006 as a realistic date for the entry of the first six candidates. But they all emphasize that multiple considerations, including the cost of expansion, will play a role in fixing the date. Nothing, they say, is like to be decided before the EU summit in December.