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East/West: Leaders In Davos To Ponder EU's Future

The European Union's summit in Nice last month was a bruising experience for member states. One casualty of the wrangling over institutional reform was a coherent vision of where the EU is heading, what form a uniting Europe should take in the years ahead. Now the World Economic Forum in Davos (25-30 January) is bringing together some of the main actors from East and West to discuss such issues. RFE/RL correspondent Breffni O'Rourke looks at whether Davos can help heal the wounds of Nice, and rekindle the debate on a future path.

Prague, 23 January 2001 (RFE/RL) -- When leaders from Western and Eastern Europe meet this week in the Swiss resort of Davos, one important issue they are sure to discuss is the future of European unity.

Ever since last month's divisive summit in Nice, it has been clear that the EU has no single vision of its own future, and the impetus that began last year to define a vision appears to be fading.

German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer started the process of trying to define a future for the EU when in May he presented a boldly pro-integrationist plan for a federated Europe, a sort of "United States of Europe."

Later, by way of response, French President Jacques Chirac, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and EU Executive Commission President Romano Prodi all presented their own visions. These differed widely from one another and from that of Fischer, but all were inspired by the same motive. Namely, how the Union is to continue as a community when 10 or so long-estranged Eastern new members are added.

Then came the Nice summit, and the sour taste generated by ill-tempered infighting about reforms necessary to make space for the Easterners. Lost in the wrangling was any sense of where the Union is ultimately heading.

But German leaders, including Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, last week returned to the big theme, repeating the controversial plan for an EU with strong centralized powers.

Now the debate is to be started anew at the World Economic Forum's annual meeting opening this week in Davos. Forum organizers have arranged a series of panel sessions on the theme of Europe at which not only key EU figures will participate, but also leaders from the 10 current Eastern candidate-member states.

One session is entitled "The Shape of Europe to Come," and features the presidents of three candidate countries: Aleksander Kwasniewski of Poland, Ferenc Madl of Hungary and Peter Stoyanov of Bulgaria. Teamed with them in the session is a key figure from Brussels: Guenter Verheugen, the EU's enlargement commissioner. He's the one who ensures that the candidates are fulfilling the conditions on the way to membership.

In remarks to RFE/RL about the presence this year of so many Eastern leaders at Davos, Forum spokesman Charles McLean explained his organization's views on overcoming the old European dividing lines:

"The point there is that it seems it would probably be of maximum value for everyone if we saw Europe as an integrated whole, and I think that will be in the best interests of the Eastern participants and also an advantage for the Westerners. So at least as the Forum sees it, we are beginning to look at Europe as an integrated whole, and I think that's a big step forward."

Another Davos session will address the question whether there should be a "United States of Europe" or a "United Europe of States." That issue points directly to the competing visions already put forward by integrationist Fischer and by Tony Blair, who wants to keep the Union weak at the center, in favor of member-states sovereignty.

Fischer himself is expected to take part on that panel, together with Foreign Minister Anna Lindh of Sweden and French European Affairs Minister Pierre Moscovici. The presence of Sweden, the current EU president, adds extra weight to the discussion.

Moscovici's attendance is also important because it suggests that President Chirac's ideas may also be aired. Setting out his thoughts in October, the French president spoke of the need for an "inner core" of members led by France and Germany to press ahead of the others with deeper integration. The other countries, either unwilling or unable to join in, would be in a second group -- thus conceivably dividing the EU into "two speeds." This concept of forging ahead, called "enhanced cooperation," was accepted in principle at the Nice summit.

Critics of enhanced cooperation say that by allowing the bigger, longer-established EU members to preserve their influence as a bloc, the two-speed system would weaken the Union as a whole.

In another session at Davos, a number of East European leaders will discuss how their region can make further economic and political progress after the first decade of transition. Speakers include Slovak Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda, Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, Croatian President Stipe Mesic, and Verheugen.

On the broader theme of economics, spokesman McLean says he expects the Davos Forum to contribute to the debate about Europe's economic performance:

"I think it definitely will. The forum now will be looking at the changing economic balance between the United States and Europe. The [economic] slowdown in the United States has a global impact, but clearly at least at this point Europe seems to be weathering the storm quite well."

Yet another Davos session, called "A Roadmap for the Baltic States," brings together the presidents of the three Baltic republics: Estonia's Lennart Meri, Latvia's Vaira Vike-Freiburga, and Lithuania's Valdas Adamkus. Their theme is the pivotal role of the Baltic states in Europe's relationship with Russia.