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EU: Social Democrats Skeptical About Germany's Proposed Reforms

German proposals for reforming the European Union have met with a generally skeptical response at a meeting in Berlin of 20 European social democratic parties. British and Danish representatives took the lead in voicing doubts about ideas for a centralized European government made public last week by German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. RFE/RL correspondent Roland Eggleston reports.

Munich, 8 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Addressing the first session of the two-day congress of European social democratic parties yesterday, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder made it clear that he would press ahead with his ideas for rebuilding the EU's political institutions -- despite a less-than-enthusiastic reception from several EU governments.

In his opening address, Schroeder urged the other social democratic parties -- 10 of which, like his, control EU governments -- to weigh carefully his proposals for a federal Europe, including the transformation of the European Commission into a body akin to a European government. Several of his ideas suggest that Europe should follow the German model of a federal state.

Schroeder told the 20 social democratic parties that the EU cannot secure a peaceful and prosperous future and bring in new members without what he called a "clear orientation" that would be provided by his proposed reforms.

He particularly criticized the EU's lack of transparency and complicated decision-making processes, which he said were incomprehensible to most ordinary citizens. Schroeder said his goal was to strengthen Europe and its institutions. "We want to make our contribution to Europe and above all to its institutions. Above all that means strengthening the existing institutions, the institutions we have created."

But Denmark's Prime Minister Paul Rasmussen told the conference that governments should be very careful about imposing on independent nations what he called "a very, very theoretical model which in practice involves a lot of problems."

Speaking to reporters, Rasmussen added: "Cooperation between states in Europe is a complicated matter. We can't just make an easy design and say that's what we want if it does not function properly."

Swedish Prime Minister Goran Persson said he was not in favor of federal structures in Europe. British Prime Minister Tony Blair cancelled his attendance at the conference at the last moment, but his foreign minister, Robin Cook, showed little enthusiasm for the German chancellor's ideas.

Officials said the strongest support for Schroeder came from Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, whose country takes over the six-month rotating presidency of the EU in July. Social democrat leaders from Italy and the Netherlands also supported Schroeder's ideas to some extent.

French Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin made no public comment on Schroeder's ideas. In his remarks to the congress, Jospin said only that, in accordance with democratic procedures, a debate on the EU's future should now begin.

Jospin made clear he expected the debate to be lengthy. He said the issue of Europe's future should be discussed first at the national level and then at the European level. He said there was no need to complete it before an important intergovernmental conference in 2004 on reforming the EU.

French Minister for European Affairs Pierre Moscovi, who also attended the meeting, said Jospin would soon deliver a statement of principles regarding the EU's future. Moscovi told journalists he expected a declaration from Jospin before mid-June -- that is, before a scheduled debate in the French National Assembly on ratifying the latest EU treaty, which was signed at a summit in Nice five months ago.

Moscovi said France strongly believed that nation-states should continue to be important in the EU. He said European peoples believed their own elected governments gave them a sense of identity in the EU.

The EU's commissioner for European expansion, Guenther Verheugen, told journalists he did not expect any quick decisions on Schroeder's proposals for rebuilding European institutions. He said he thought the debate would continue for several years.

Verheugen emphasized that the reform debate should not delay the expansion of the European Union. He said expansion had been agreed upon at the Nice summit in December and now would be implemented.

German Defense Minister Rudolf Scharping told journalists he believed there was basic agreement that Europe's institutions needed to be reformed. But, he added, a thorough discussion was necessary on what needed to be reformed and how it should be done.

Scharping stepped down today (8 May) as the chairman of the group of social democratic parties, which operates under the name of the Party of European Socialists. He was replaced by British Foreign Secretary Cook.