As with most European Union summits, the agenda for this weekend's gathering (23-24 March) in the Swedish capital Stockholm is filled with rather dull subjects, such as how to strengthen the EU's internal single market. But events in a turbulent world have a way of adding drama even to EU summits. The leaders of the 15 member states are gathering amid the escalating Balkan crisis over Macedonia and the farming emergency caused by hoof-and-mouth and mad cow disease. Discussion of Macedonia in particular is expected to dominate the meeting. Adding further color to the event will be an appearance by Russian President Vladimir Putin. RFE/RL correspondent Breffni O'Rourke previews the Stockholm meeting.
Prague, 21 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The unfolding conflict in Macedonia, which pits government troops against ethnic Albanian fighters, is an important test of the EU's efforts to build a more effective foreign and security policy.
With this in mind, EU foreign ministers took the unprecedented step this week of inviting NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson to join them to discuss how the Union and the alliance can coordinate their actions in the crisis.
At that meeting on 19 March, the foreign ministers also dispatched EU security policy chief Javier Solana to Macedonia, and he was soon to be followed by a senior ministerial delegation. Both Solana and the delegation members will report back to the Stockholm summit, which will ponder the EU's move.
According to a spokesman for the EU's current president, Sweden, Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski will also address the Union's leaders.
In effect, the latest Balkan crisis is a credibility test for the EU. It will show how far the Union has come since its inability to act effectively was made clear during the Bosnian war in the mid-1990s. Swedish Foreign Minister Anna Lindh underscored the importance the EU attaches to proper coordination with the NATO-led peace force in Kosovo, or KFOR, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE:
"I think it is extraordinarily important that all actors such as KFOR, the EU, and the OSCE are now cooperating and coordinating our efforts so we will be able to make the [Macedonian] borders more secure and see whatever we can do to stop the violence."
But EU support for Macedonia in the present conflict will remain on the political and economic level. The planned EU rapid reaction military force -- designed to give the Union a military dimension in just such situations as Macedonia -- is not due to become operational until 2003.
The NATO alliance, which incorporates most EU members individually, remains the source of military muscle. But in seeking to coordinate actions so promptly with alliance head Robertson, the EU is also trying to show that its rapid reaction force will not develop into a rival to NATO, as some critics of the military project fear.
The other crisis facing EU leaders, that of agriculture, is closer to home. The current outbreak of hoof-and-mouth disease in Britain continues to spread in that country. There is also a pocket of infection in northwestern France, and one in the Netherlands, giving the disease a foothold on the continent. The summit will review control measures already in place, but will probably not decide on any new action unless the infection appears to be spreading beyond its present confines.
Russian President Vladimir Putin will join the 15 EU leaders as a guest on the first day of the summit, Friday (23 March).
Jan Strom, a senior official in the Swedish Prime Minister's Office, says the occasion is an important one:
"This is the first meeting between all [EU] heads of state and government and Mr. Putin, and it will mainly be concerned with economic issues -- for example, questions surrounding a possible lending regime by the [EU's] European Investment Bank to Russia, World Trade Organization membership, and the like."
Putin is expected to press for Union help for the impoverished Russian exclave of Kaliningrad. That region, which was German territory until World War Two, is surrounded by EU candidate members Poland and Lithuania.
Both Germany and Sweden have put a priority on helping Kaliningrad, which is beset by economic, social, and environmental problems. Sweden in particular is backing large-scale plans to build waste-water treatment plants both in Kaliningrad and in Saint Petersburg. Those projects may be discussed at the summit.
Putin will probably not be able to escape some criticism at the summit, particularly on Russia's human rights record in Chechnya. Strom says:
"That [economic focus] does not preclude any discussion or any intervention from participants in other areas. For example, you could mention points of criticism which member states perhaps have on different points of Russian policy."
In addition, subjects such as organized crime and Russia's management of nuclear waste are also likely to be discussed with Putin. The Russian president's tentative schedule calls for a talk with Swedish Prime Minister Goran Persson in the morning, followed by a working lunch with the 15 leaders, then bilateral meetings with individual leaders. He is scheduled to round off the day with a press conference. Russia and the EU have shared an association agreement since 1997. Putin's trip comes ahead of a Russian-EU summit set for May in Moscow.
Other Stockholm summit agenda topics include a review of how far the Union has advanced since the goal of creating a "knowledge-based economy" exploiting new technology was announced in Lisbon a year ago.
The Stockholm summit was originally intended to be a "post-Lisbon" meeting to assess progress towards the goal of making the EU the most competitive economic area in the world.
Within this framework, there will probably also be discussion of the aging of European populations, and what to do about that. The debate coincides with a new EU-wide survey showing that while a growing number of EU citizens accept a multi-cultural society, more of them also fear that immigration will create social destabilization.