The six-month Portuguese presidency of the European Union is drawing to a close with apparently little progress having been made toward internal reforms to allow the EU to admit new members. At the same time, a debate has been sparked about fundamentals -- namely, what the union's final constitutional shape should look like. As a new round of negotiations with the six front-running Eastern candidates opens in Brussels tomorrow, correspondent Breffni O'Rourke provides an overview.
Prague, 25 May 2000 (RFE/RL) -- France and Germany, the two "heavyweights" of the European Union, are getting together to develop a common line on reform issues considered crucial to the question of admitting new East European members.
France takes over the rotating presidency of the union in just over a month (July 1) and it will have the job of completing a crucial Inter-Governmental Conference, or IGC. Underway since early this year, the IGC is mandated to agree by December on EU internal reforms that will allow the union to operate effectively even when expanded to as many as 28 countries (that number includes Turkey, which has provisional candidate status with the EU).
French European Affairs Minister Pierre Moscovici said this week that Paris and Berlin will work together to present what he called "very close views" on what the IGC needs to do at the EU summit in Porto (June 19-20) that will mark the end of the Portuguese presidency.
The IGC began under the Portuguese, but has apparently made little progress in the last five months. A report from Brussels [in the weekly "European Voice"] says participants have agreed to abolish national vetoes in only three minor areas so far. If an enlarged EU is to avoid paralysis, the IGC needs to achieve, among other things, much tighter restriction than that on the right of individual countries to veto EU decisions.
Of course, close Franco-German cooperation can easily arouse the fears of other members that the "big two" are throwing their weight around, and seeking to shape the Union the way the want it. French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine was quick to say this week that France and Germany will not try to bulldoze their ideas through at the Porto summit.
Adding to those suspicions, however, are comments made at Berlin's Humbolt University earlier this month by German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer. Fischer mused about the possibility of eventually making the EU a federal state -- an idea ideologically untenable to members like Britain and Sweden.
London-based analyst Ben Hall, of the Center for European Reform, says one of Fischer's aims was apparently to reanimate Germany's ties with Paris, long the key relationship of the EU:
"The Franco-German relationship is much weaker than it has been for a long time, but it is not dead, I think what Joschka Fischer has tried to do is to provide a big idea which can rally the French people and German people, and governments on both sides of the Rhine."
But Fischer's remarks -- although expressed as only his private view -- have touched some raw nerves, especially in France. Interior Minister Jean-Pierre Chevenement, a prominent French Euro-skeptic, accused Fischer of wanting to recreate the Holy Roman Empire and indirectly -- but pointedly -- referred to Germany's Nazi past. In turn, former French president Valery Giscard d'Estaing strongly criticized Chevenement for being excessive in his language.
In Rome, Italian Prime Minister Giuliano Amato said he believes talk of a leap forward into federalism is not really relevant. He said the EU will probably instead inch forward, as usual, "combining integration and cooperation, common elements and classic compromises between governments."
Likewise, analyst Hall does not see further European integration as leading inevitably to federalism.
"I do agree that economic and monetary union will require some more coordination of economic policy. It will not require a single finance minister based in Brussels, it will not require the merging of 15 or more economic policies, but there will be a need for closer coordination of those policies."
Brussels-based analyst Jurgen Nunes-Ferrer of the Center for European Policy studies takes a different view. He says that regardless of whether you call it federalism or something else, the practical need for so many countries to work together means the idea of weakening of an individual country's sovereignty must be accepted.
"The bigger the European Union is -- if you want to keep it coherent -- the stronger will be the links between different functions. This is part of the normal development of something which is growing together, and the more troubles there are the more will have to be addressed and, at the end, the differences between federalism, union and so on [diminish]."
For Nunes-Ferrer, having an arrangement which works is more important than the label applied to it.
"The more you work together, the more federal the structures become and it is better to accept that, than to work against it, and always come three years late with every kind of reform, or even 10 years late."
At any rate -- and regardless of the debate over the EU's final constitutional form -- the 10 Central and East European candidate members are pressing Brussels for action on enlargement. Their attitude seems to be that contributing to the debate over federalism can wait until they are inside the club. And tomorrow (May 26), tough negotiations start between the EU Commission and the six front-running candidates on a range of difficult subjects, including free movement of people and border security.