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EU: Results Of Nice Summit Not Easy To Assess

The results of this weekend's EU summit in Nice defy easy assessment. While the EU removed the last formal preconditions to eastward enlargement, critics say too little was done to make sure the EU will function effectively once it has 27 members, compared with today's 15. RFE/RL correspondent Ahto Lobjakas reports:

Nice, 12 December 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The signing of the Treaty of Nice means that the European Union has formally opened its doors to enlargement.

Once the treaty is ratified by all members, the EU will be ready for new members. It will then be up to the candidate countries to make sure they are ready to accede.

But in practical terms, the summit's results are not as clear. Little was done at Nice to prepare for the reality of an unwieldy union of 27 countries.

French President Jacques Chirac, who hosted the meeting, today praised the outcome of the summit as the best possible result, given the difficult agenda and the lack of agreement among member states:

"This treaty, I think, is the best possible agreement, taking into account the constraints that existed."

Chirac told the European Parliament today that eastward expansion is a historic event and represents the Union's most important task. France holds the EU rotating presidency until the end of this month:

"Enlargement is Europe's most important business. It is, at the same time, an immense challenge and also a historic step toward the reunification of our continent."

Officials spent much of the unprecedented four-day summit discussing how future decisions are to be made. But critics say agreement will be harder -- and not easier -- to forge in the future.

The threshold for passing legislation by qualified majority voting, known as QMV, was raised from the present 69 percent of the votes in the EU Council of Ministers to nearly 75 percent after enlargement. It will then be easier for bigger countries to block QMV decisions.

Although the need for unanimity was lifted in a number of new areas of decision-making, none of the larger countries budged on major issues. Britain, together with Sweden, refused to move to QMV on taxation and social issues, Germany did not give up its veto on immigration, resistance from Spain meant that development aid is subject to majority decisions in 2013 at the earliest.

Chirac today defended the decisions, saying the changes were necessary to prepare the EU for new members:

"[The treaty] answers the challenge that was sent to us: Give Europe the capacity to decide and to act after Europe proceeds with an unprecedented enlargement."

As far for the candidate countries, there is little doubt that they got a relatively good deal.

In the Council of Ministers, Poland will have equal weight with Spain. A spirited intervention by Belgium's Prime Minister Guy Verhofstad ensured that Romania will have more votes than Holland and other smaller current EU members, and that Lithuania will have the same number as Denmark and Ireland.

Also, the fact that the number of EU commissioners was not capped at 20, as suggested by some larger member countries, but at 27, means each new member will have their own commissioner.

Finally, candidate countries can take heart from overall summit conclusions, where EU members state that the first new members could join the EU before the next elections to the European Parliament. These elections are due to take place in June 2004 -- and this is the closest the EU has come so far to providing candidates with a fixed accession date.

But it wasn't all good news for the 10 central and east European candidates. The new vote re-weighting arrangements in the Council of Ministers only enter into force in 2005. Should any candidate join the EU before then, there's no fixed mechanism to determine how many council votes it will have.

Other concessions, too, amount to less than they first appear. To make ample space for the 12 active candidates -- the eastern 10 plus Cyprus and Malta -- in the European Parliament, the total number of projected future seats was increased from 700 to 738. That increased doubts about whether so large a body will be able to function properly.

Much the same applies to the European Commission. In order to accommodate 27 Commissioners, present portfolios will have to be split, leaving some commissioners possibly with little to do.

And finally, while Nice made little progress on community-wide decision-making, it did make it easier for groups of EU countries to engage in what is termed "enhanced cooperation." -- faster and easier integration in certain areas.

Although little attention was paid to the issue during the summit, there is a danger that new members might be left out of such group arrangements and become second-class citizens upon accession. This appears to be the case with the two existing instances of "enhanced cooperation" -- the Schengen visa-regime agreement and the Economic and Monetary Union, which created the euro common currency. In order to join either, accession into the EU is not enough and candidates must fulfill further conditions.