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EU: Opener -- EU's Summit Gets Under Way In Portugal

Leaders of the 15 European Union states are gathering at the resort of Feira, just outside Porto in northern Portugal, for a summit beginning today which will ponder progress in the eastwards enlargement process, among other things. Corespondent Breffni O'Rourke reports.

Porto, 19 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The European Union's mid-year summit gets under way outside the northern Portuguese city of Porto today, at a moment when the union is under pressure to make more speed towards eastward enlargement.

The two-day summit will discuss progress along the difficult path of EU internal reform, which is meant to prepare the way for the admission of new Eastern members.

The reforms are being hammered out at what is known as the Inter-Governmental Conference, the IGC, which has been steered by EU president Portugal since opening in February. So far, the IGC has made little impact on the key issues of institutional reform, such as how representation on the executive European Commission is to be arranged, how voting rights for each country are to be weighted, and how individual veto power is to be limited.

France takes over the rotating presidency of the union from Portugal 1 July, and it will have the job of bringing the IGC to a conclusion by the end of this year. At the Porto summit, French President Jacques Chirac is expected to set out his determination to make the IGC a success. Failure risks slowing down the enlargement process still further and would be a heavy blow to the candidate countries, several of which -- notably Poland and Hungary -- have been complaining to Brussels about the plodding pace of the admission process.

At Porto, the leaders are also expected to formalize approval for Greece to become the 12th member of the currency union. Greece was originally barred from the eurozone, which came into existence 18 months ago, because it did not qualify under the strict economic criteria. But EU Commissioner for Economic and Monetary Policy Pedro Solbes has issued a report saying Athens has made "striking progress" in the last two years, and now qualifies.

French Finance Minister Laurent Fabius has made clear that Paris plans to use its coming presidency to give political support to the common currency the euro, which has been chronically weak since its introduction. Fabius aims to strengthen the panel of finance ministers called the "Euro 11," so that the eurozone economies can be more closely coordinated. That would send a signal of strength to the financial markets.

The summit will also hear a report on progress being made towards setting up a European rapid reaction force independent of NATO. The inspiration for the 60,000-strong force sprang from the logistical weakness of NATO's European partners revealed by the alliance campaign in Kosovo.

The new force, to be formed by 2003, is meant to intervene in European crises where the United States does not want to become involved. The report on the force will likely be optimistic, judging from the jest made by EU security and foreign policy chief Javier Solana, who said that -- by EU standards -- progress is being made at "the speed of light."

One issue gaining much media attention is the possibility that the summit might agree on a formula for lifting sanctions imposed on Austria in February, when a far-right party entered government there. A Finnish government minister Sali Niinisto called last month for the summit to end the sanctions. However, a Portuguese spokesman Fernando Neves said yesterday that there is no initiative to lift the sanctions at Porto. France and Belgium, among others, are opposed to any easing.

For Portugal, one of the EU's poorest and newest members, the summit is the culmination of a successful if unspectacular presidency. As Juergen Nunes Ferrer, an analyst with the Center for European Policy Studies in Brussels, puts it:

"The Portuguese have targeted certain things very seriously, such as economic growth and improving the competitiveness of Europe and changing the social structures of the European Union, and trying to integrate the economies better -- it's just how to survive in a growing global economy."

Nunes Ferrer describes these as "nuts and bolts" tasks, solidly important but not very visible or politically "flashy," as he puts it.

The French presidency is likely to take on a different character, however -- one where bigger issues are broached. As the analyst says:

"One of the problems which still lacks a solution is to define what is going to be the shape of the European Union, after enlargement."

Paris will use its presidency to tackle such a question, to try to chart the way toward further European integration. A speech in April by German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, musing on the possibilities of a future federal Europe, has rekindled debate on long-term goals. The initial French reaction to Fischer's vision was restrained, but officials have lately been warmer, with Finance Minister Laurent Fabius calling Fischer's ideas "important and very interesting."

France and Germany are at the center of an impulse among the original EU members to move toward greater integration as an "inner core" of members. That would create for the first time a two-speed union, in which Euroskeptics like Britain and Sweden, along with newly arrived easterners, would form an outer circle -- an arrangement which could prove divisive.