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EU: Austria, Enlargement Discussed On Summit's First Day

EU leaders have begun their two-day summit in Feira, Portugal. No major decisions are expected, but RFE/RL correspondent Ahto Lobjakas reports that the major issues facing the EU are whether to continue sanctions against Austria and what reforms will be necessary to prepare for enlargement.

Feira, 19 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- EU leaders gathered in Feira, Portugal, today to wrap up the Portuguese term of the EU's rotating presidency. The agenda of the two-day meeting includes some fundamental issues.

The most immediate questions that faced the summit today concerned Austria. First, there is the question of the political sanctions imposed on Austria earlier this year by its 14 EU partners in response to the inclusion in the governing coalition of Joerg Haider's extreme-right Freedom Party. The question is not on the agenda of the Feira summit, and officials here say it is not going to be officially debated. But Austria is keen to raise the question whenever possible.

Austrian Foreign Minister Benita Ferrero-Waldner today said Austria wants the EU to offer a mutually acceptable compromise solution before the Portuguese presidency ends on 30 June. Such a compromise did not seem very likely today, as Portuguese Secretary of State Francisco Seixas da Costa told journalists the boycott would be ended if Austria gives its partners "enough reason." France and Belgium -- the countries leading the boycott -- have repeatedly said the only condition for the lifting of sanctions is the departure of the Freedom Party from Austria's government.

Austria was also in the limelight today as the main stumbling block on the road to solving a complex controversy regarding attempts to coordinate EU tax policy. EU officials say Austria has objective technical reasons to block a compromise. Behind the scenes, however, Austria's intransigence is seen as a sign that Austria is willing to block EU decision-making if political sanctions are not lifted soon.

Much of the debate today at Feira was dominated by the future of the EU. The most obvious aspect of this future for many countries outside the EU -- enlargement -- was not in itself a major item. Most officials say EU countries are committed to enlargement and wish to see the necessary reforms for enlargement agreed on by the end of the year.

But what will those reforms entail? It is becoming increasingly clear to many member countries that an enlarged EU of 27 or 28 member countries will have to lose something of its present levels of cohesion and integration.

The desire is therefore growing within the EU to discover, before enlargement actually takes place, where its present members really want to go. This has prompted a whole rash of initiatives, ranging from attempts to define the EU's core values to attempts to establish an inner circle of closer EU integration for certain countries.

Both themes cropped up today. Before lunch, the EU heads of government were presented with the results of the work done so far on the Fundamental Charter of Rights. Portugal's Secretary of State Seixas da Costa, representing the EU presidency, today said member countries have very different views on the charter. Some, like France and Italy, want to see the new charter incorporated into EU law, and to eventually become an EU constitution. Others, like Britain and the Scandinavian countries, feel the charter should not replace national constitutions and should have a purely declaratory role. A decision is not expected before the end of the French presidency in December.

The issue of faster integration for some member countries -- or "closer cooperation," as EU documents now refer to it -- took up most of the afternoon discussion. The summit will probably decide to include the issue of closer cooperation in the EU's internal reforms project. Once there, it will form one of its most controversial components for the EU and candidate countries alike.

EU members who are less willing to integrate than others fear that closer cooperation will lead to the creation of a European federation and swamp national sovereignty. EU candidates, on the other hand, fear that closer cooperation will create barriers within the EU, so that even after accession they could still be left outside important areas of cooperation.