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EU: Summit Ends, Unsolved Problems Endure

The European Union's midyear summit in Feira, Portugal, ended today (Tuesday) inconclusively. EU leaders affirmed their commitment to enlargement, but displayed an inability to settle the problems that must be worked out before it can take place. RFE/RL's Ahto Lobjakas reports from the summit.

Feira, Portugal; 20 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The EU summit that ended today in Feira was the first official gathering of EU leaders since last December's Helsinki summit, which brought the number of countries involved in accession talks to 12. Feira was a chance to take stock, to analyze whether enlargement by 12 new members is qualitatively different from enlargement by six.

But this summit has demonstrated a conspicuous absence of clear answers. EU leaders affirmed that enlargement remains a top priority and said they discussed it on Monday over lunch, but the space devoted to enlargement in the official summit conclusions amounts to a few paragraphs. In those, the EU vowed to keep the process firmly on track and to be ready for enlargement by the end of 2002.

Less formally, observers and EU officials seem to agree that enlargement is no longer a moral imperative, but a practical chore. The emphasis has subtly shifted. While the EU remains committed to a speedy enlargement, it now misses no opportunity to say that speed must be accompanied by quality. The latest example of this was given at Feira by German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who was quoted by members of his delegation as saying that it is not certain that candidate countries will be ready to join by 2003.

Candidate countries have recently resorted to accusing the EU that it lacks the political will for enlargement. That criticism is probably unjustified.

But it is undeniable that the prospect of taking in 12 new countries within a decade has made many EU governments think twice. Taking in six relatively advanced new members was thought to entail no drastic changes to the way things are done within the EU. It has become clear that welcoming 12 new members will result in a very different union.

That realization was manifested at Feira by the predominance of focus on the EU's own future, with enlargement as the ever-present backdrop.

The proposed Charter of Fundamental Rights, debated on Monday, is an attempt to sum up core European values. The president of the European Commission, Romano Prodi, said on Friday in Brussels that the charter will also be a reference point for candidates, representing that which the EU cannot give up.

The EU's painful reaction to the inclusion of the far-right Freedom Party in Austria's government follows the same pattern. The Feira summit failed to lift the political sanctions imposed on Vienna, and many observers note that the severity with which Austria has been treated serves as a warning to candidates to keep extremists out of government.

The debate on "enhanced cooperation" -- the term for a proposed deeper integration among some current EU members -- was in important ways inspired by enlargement. Enhanced cooperation could provide the means for more advanced member states to retain the present speed of integration without waiting for new members to catch up. Candidate countries, on the other hand, fear that they will be left out of crucial spheres of cooperation within the EU.

The Feira summit showed that many fundamental debates within the EU have barely started. If the EU is to be ready for enlargement by 2003, most of these questions, as well as the wider issue of internal EU reform, will have to be resolved by the end of the year.

Yet at this moment, there is little consensus within the EU itself about what direction the union should take. This was expressed yesterday by EU External Relations Commissioner Chris Patten, who singled out enhanced cooperation as one of the most difficult issues.

"I think there is a general concern that a wider debate about the future of the union shouldn't prevent us from reaching agreement on the essentials by Nice [summit in December], but obviously enhanced cooperation is new on the agenda and does raise issues that are of considerable interest and concern to a number of the member states."

The EU has made a habit of deciding difficult issues at the 11th hour. This time, however, the range of controversial issues is wider than ever before. Candidate countries fear that the agenda for the French EU presidency, which runs from July to December this year, is dangerously overloaded.

From Tallinn to Ljubljana, candidate governments are preparing for a long, anxious wait.