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East: EU President Tries To Ease Candidate Countries' Concerns

EU enlargement will demand reforms both from the candidate countries and the members themselves. Yesterday (Monday), candidates for membership were briefed on progress on internal reforms necessary for enlargement. Ahto Lobjakas reports.

Brussels, 6 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Faced by growing criticism it is dragging its feet over enlargement, the EU yesterday attempted to show candidate countries that it was continuing its reform agenda.

Portugal, representing the rotating EU presidency until the end of June, summoned to Brussels the officials in the 12 candidate countries. The aim of the meeting was to inform the countries of progress made within the framework of the Intergovernmental Conference (IGC). The IGC is the forum in which EU member countries discuss internal reforms necessary for the smooth functioning of the union after it takes in up to 12 new members.

At the Helsinki summit last December, EU leaders said the successful conclusion of the IGC was a precondition of enlargement. They committed the EU to finishing the reform debate by the end of this year, so that the EU would be ready to enlarge at the end of 2002.

Portuguese Secretary of State Seixas da Costa, who chaired yesterday's meeting, said the IGC talks had moved on as planned under the Portuguese presidency. He emphasized however, that final conclusions would only emerge under the French presidency in the second half of this year:

"The situation is still very far from decided, but I think that the basic work which was done under the Portuguese presidency is essential for the next presidency to try to find a common final solution. I very much hope this solution can be found [before] December."

The talks among the 15 EU member governments center on four issues central to ensuring that enlargement does not bring the Union's decision-making machinery to a deadlock.

The first is the size of the European Commission, which plays an executive role. All members now have a commissioner -- some have two. The consensus among EU members favors limiting the commission to its present size of 20. According to Da Costa, however, all candidate countries want representatives on the commission. A possible compromise could see countries with no commissioners given more jobs in other important common bodies of the Union.

The second issue concerns national voting power. Currently, the system favors smaller countries. In order not to be out-voted by a growing number of small member states, bigger countries like Germany, Great Britain, and France demand that votes be shared proportionally, relative to the size of each country's population. Da Costa yesterday said candidate countries appear divided on this issue, with smaller countries opposing the plans.

The third issue is the reduction of national veto powers and the introduction of majority voting in most areas of EU decision-making. According to Da Costa, candidate countries generally agree excessive veto rights could bring a 27-member EU to a stand-still.

Fourthly, new members need to be allocated seats in the European parliament. This is the least controversial of the four issues, with all candidates agreeing the size of the parliament should be limited to 700 deputies.

The agenda of the IGC may not remain limited to only these four issues. An item which will almost certainly be included during the French presidency concerns possibilities for so-called "enhanced cooperation." This means, that some member countries could integrate faster than other countries in certain areas. Precedents for this already exist in the Schengen agreement and the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU), neither of which encompasses all members of the EU.

Some fear this could result in a two-tiered union, with an inner core of highly integrated states and a secondary circle of members unable or unwilling to integrate so closely.

Candidates fear the complicated and divisive issue of "enhanced cooperation" might delay the IGC. Yesterday, the Estonian chief negotiator with the EU, Alar Streimann, summed up the fear as follows.

"I think our main concern is that the agenda of the IGC could grow to an extent where it could not be finished by the end of the year. This is problem 'number one' for us--that the debate on "enhanced cooperation" should spin out of control suddenly. It is my understanding the political pressure to tackle the issue has recently become very strong."

Another concern shared by candidate countries is that they would be excluded from vital spheres of "enhanced cooperation," for example the common defense effort or further political integration.