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EU: Statesmen Try To Resolve Differing Visions Of Europe

The leaders of France and Germany, President Jacques Chirac and Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, are meeting today amid strains between their two countries. Last month's European Union summit in Nice saw sharp differences between the two big powers over issues of EU reform and future directions, and today's meeting will try to clear the air. The summit, at a secluded restaurant near Strasbourg, follows a series of debates at the World Economic Forum in Davos dealing with the "vision" of how an enlarged EU might look.

Prague, 31 January 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Both Germany and France were absent from the Davos debates on the future of Europe. German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer -- perhaps the leading thinker on this subject -- and France's European affairs minister, Pierre Moscovici, were meant to be the star panelists. But they left the World Economic Forum prematurely without a convincing explanation.

Fischer expressed worry about a snow storm. But the real reason is more likely to be found in the Chirac-Schroeder summit, which will try and put the key partnership in the EU back on a warmer footing. The two sides presumably thought it best to avoid any headlines from Davos which could cast shadows over the summit by emphasizing their differences.

Germany, for instance, believes the EU should follow a path of integration, with strong and clearly defined powers for the center, meaning the European Commission in Brussels. The French view, on the contrary, is to keep the center weak and to steer the EU through direct contacts between the member governments.

Apart from having to cope with this wide conceptual difference, the two countries are suffering strains from the Nice summit where they quarreled over Germany's demand for more votes than France on the EU's decision-making Council of Ministers. In the end, Paris defeated that demand, and the two countries retain their voting parity despite the fact that Germany has a larger population. The atmosphere between the two countries is reportedly made more difficult by differences of character and temperament between Chirac and Schroeder.

Both Paris and Berlin, however, continue to realize that their relationship is the indispensable one at the heart of the EU. Speaking of France-German relations in a speech this week (Jan 30), Fischer said:

"Only together can we be the driving force in a bigger union, and move forward the integration of Europe."

Back at Davos, the various debates about the future of Europe fell rather flat in the absence of Fischer and Moscovici. The foreign minister of current EU president Sweden, Anna Lindh, put her own ideas forward, saying that she expected the two trends, both the intergovernmental and the supranational, to be present as a mixture in the EU for a long time.

She said the debate about future directions has time to evolve over the next several years. Germany has proposed a conference in 2004 to set out the responsibilities belonging to the center and those belonging to member states. Lindh also said work must be done to popularize the EU, and that ordinary people must be made to feel more clearly the relevance of the Union to their lives.

Lindh was supported in this by Danish Prime Minister Poul Nyrup Rasmussen, who said the EU must be more transparent so that people do not fear Brussels is taking too much power.

Spanish Finance Minister Rodrigo de Rato y Figaredo said that the common currency, the euro, will have a key practical role in shaping the new Europe.

He said the two-year-old currency will be a powerful driving force for political as well as economic integration. Because of it, young people will have a different perception of Europe to that of their parents, in that they will be able to travel from Spain to Finland using the one currency.

The liveliest idea to emerge from Davos was one put forward by Bulgarian President Petar Stoyanov. He called for the EU to admit all 12 Central and East European candidate members together in one "big bang" in 2004.

He explained this would involve granting, where needed, long transition periods to countries which could not meet all EU criteria at the moment of entry, such as in environmental standards.

He said he viewed eastward enlargement of the EU as primarily a political process, and a big bang entry would have the advantage of giving the easterners a secure political framework. They could then work on fulfilling all the economic and other criteria demanded by EU. At the same time, he underlined how hard Bulgaria had worked in the last few years to fulfill EU requirements. He said:

"In relative terms, this may be the most impressive progress [Bulgaria has yet made] and the most decisive steps within the shortest period of time."

Stoyanov told a joke about the slowness of the EU's present accession process. Incorporating into the joke Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski, who was sitting on the same panel, Stoyanov said that Kwasniewski had asked God when Poland would gain admission to the Union. God replied that it would not be during Kwasniewski's first term as president. But when he, Stoyanov, asked God the same question in relation to Bulgaria, God replied that it would not be during God's term.

However, the EU's enlargement commissioner, Guenter Verheugen, who was also present, dampened the merriment somewhat. He rejected the big bang, saying it had come under discussion in the early 1990s but was now too late, in that the present EU accession process is well established.

Verheugen further described the big bang plan as unrealistic, in that it would mean that at the moment of entry, some candidates -- the present advanced ones -- would have had to fulfill all the requirements, while others would have to fulfill only some.

As a Dutch political analyst at Davos, Arno Reeker, put it:

"We've had these kind of discussions before, and I don't think that the other European countries will accept [the Stoyanov plan]; it won't happen, a few countries have been chosen [as first-wave candidates], they are allowed to enter the European Union in a very tight schedule and the other countries are not allowed to do so."

As reflected at Davos, therefore, it seems that the "vision" of where Europe is going still needs further elaboration.