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EU: Nice Summit Opens With East-West Meeting

By Breffni O'Rourke and Ahto Lobjakas

The European Union has begun a crucial summit in the French resort city of Nice. The meeting, due to continue into the weekend, is aimed at reaching agreement on key internal reforms that will clear the way for the EU's eastward enlargement. Before the summit's formal opening, the 15 union leaders met with their counterparts from 13 candidate member countries -- most of them from Central and Eastern Europe. RFE/RL correspondents Breffni O'Rourke and Ahto Lobjakas report that the East-West get-together provided an opportunity for the candidates to express their demands the EU move more swiftly toward expansion.

Nice, 7 December (RFE/RL) -- In order to hold a conference, you first have to get to the conference center. That was no easy task today in the French resort city of Nice, where leaders of the European Union and of the 13 candidate member states had to brave waves of tear gas, fired by French police to keep back protesters gathered at the meeting site.

As well as voicing their opposition to economic globalization, the demonstrators -- now almost a standard feature of the international conference circuit -- demanded increased social protection from the EU.

The leaders of the 10 central and Eastern European candidate nations also had demands to make to the EU, although in a more restrained form. In effect, they told the 15-nation group: Let's get on at last with the enlargement, give us dates for membership, and fulfill your promise of making sweeping internal reforms to make room for us.

Speaking to reporters, Poland's Secretary of State for European Affairs Jacek Sariusz-Wolski said that the candidates: "are making real advances and should not be kept in the cold anymore."

One important result of this morning's joint East-West meeting was a broad agreement on greater cooperation between the two sides on quasi-constitutional matters -- that is, future discussions on the EU's powers and responsibilities.

RFE/RL's correspondent in Nice reports that the candidates expressed a strong desire to be involved in the EU's internal evolution.

The East-West meeting preceded the formal opening of the EU summit this afternoon. The 15 member states are holding what are expected to be extremely difficult negotiations on reforming the Union's institutions to ensure that they can still function when EU membership is almost doubled.

For almost a year, an EU intergovernmental conference has been negotiating the key reform issues, but with little result. The most important issues relate to further limiting the use of the national veto, the size of the European Commission after enlargement, and the adoption of a formula for qualified majority voting. There are wide differences of view among members, and each one of those issues has the potential to stall the summit.

There was, however, some good news on the reform front just before the summit got underway. The EU Commissioner responsible for internal reform, Michel, told journalists that member states had reached agreement -- at least in principle -- on the future size and composition of the Commission. Barnier said the summit will probably agree that each EU member country -- including the Eastern newcomers -- should have one commissioner.

Barnier described the result as a compromise that might be reviewed once all present candidates have joined, bringing the number of commissioners to 28. A commission of that size is widely considered too big and unwieldy to be optimally effective. But apparently the negotiators agreed that each member must have a commissioner.

At present, the Commission has 20 seats. The five biggest member-states, including France and Germany, each have two commissioners, the others one each.

With diplomatic caution, Barnier also expressed optimism that the time was ripe for progress across the board. He said:

"What we can say about the state of mind of the heads of state and government is that there is, at the moment I am speaking to you, a state of mind to get agreement -- and a suitable agreement -- that corresponds to the aim of this negotiation, which is to begin the enlargement under good conditions.'

This afternoon's first working session dealt with social affairs and enlargement. Tomorrow, the meeting will discuss a wide range of issues, including so-called "mad cow" disease and food safety generally, foreign policy and -- only later -- key internal reform issues.