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EU: Enlargement Not A Top Priority For New Belgian Presidency

Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt presented a list yesterday of priorities guiding the work of the EU's next Belgian presidency. The list is headed by a commitment to promote the "European social model" and also includes the introduction of euro notes and coins at the turn of the year. Our correspondent reports that eastward enlargement of the EU does not appear to be a leading priority. RFE/RL Brussels correspondent Ahto Lobjakas reports.

Brussels, 3 July 2001 (RFE/RL) -- All recent EU presidencies -- the Swedish, French, Portuguese, and Finnish -- have put the spotlight on the EU's planned eastward enlargement, promising "breakthroughs" and an acceleration of accession talks. Although their success in meeting such a pledge has been debatable, the promise itself has become a staple of every president's list of priorities.

But Belgium, which took over the rotating presidency on Sunday, 1 July, is breaking with that tradition. Instead, its list of priorities heralds a relatively routine half-year for enlargement. The issue comes only fifth among seven main concerns, and with no breakthroughs promised. Even if the order of the priorities is not meant to reflect their relative importance, Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt's brevity in discussing enlargement was in itself a sign that the issue may see little major progress during the next six months.

Clearly, the most important task facing Verhofstadt is the issue topping his list of priorities -- to promote the "European social model."

The goal of achieving such a model is frequently evoked by many of Europe's left-wing leaders. Some, like French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, consider it a trait particular to postwar Europe and clearly hold it in contrast to the market capitalist model exemplified by the United States.

Verhofstadt follows Jospin's line of thought. Introducing his country's presidency yesterday, he said the European social model should go beyond the simple improvement of material welfare provisions:

"The most important point about the European social model is to give the social dimension more substance and form. This is important. Also, when we speak about a gap between citizens and the European institutions, then is it also not because the European social dimension is underdeveloped?"

Verhofstadt said Belgium would strive toward giving employees greater rights in business decisions, improving its approach to unemployment, and assisting pension schemes.

Verhofstadt then went on to discuss the changeover to the euro at the turn of the year, better coordinating the EU's immigration and asylum policies, and promoting ecologically "sustainable" economic development.

On the topic of enlargement, the Belgian prime minister had two messages for the candidate countries. First, that the Belgian presidency would "strictly" adhere to the European Commission timetable -- the so-called "road map" for accession talks -- which envisages the conclusion of talks with the best-prepared candidates by the end of next year. This commitment is hardly surprising, however, given that the "road map" has been endorsed by EU leaders successively at their Nice and Goteborg summits.

The second -- and for most candidates, less palatable -- message was the prime minister's pledge to ensure the "quality" of enlargement. Verhofstadt said, "It is important that the candidates' administrative and judicial structures develop in such a way that once they adopt [EU legislation], its practical implementation should be smooth."

While it is difficult to argue with the thrust of the argument -- that adequate implementation of EU law is an essential precondition of accession -- many candidates fear that implementation, which remains an "under-determined" criterion, could be used to stall enlargement.

What the EU means by implementation should become clearer by the Ghent summit in October, which will discuss European Commission "monitoring reports" on candidates.

Belgium's sixth presidential priority covers EU foreign policy. Here Verhofstadt promised a greater emphasis on the Congo, saying that although the Balkans were "around the corner" and the Middle East "strategically" more important, the war in the Congo, with its millions of victims, had a "human dimension" that could not be ignored.

And last but not least, Belgium will also address the simmering debate on the future of the EU. To this end, the Laaken summit in December will adopt a declaration, which Verhofstadt says will address public apprehensions evidenced by the recent referenda in Denmark, where voters have rejected several EU projects, and Ireland, where the Nice Treaty was voted down last month.

Although minor-country presidencies are not expected to work miracles, past experience indicates that they can succeed in areas of priority. Sweden, the holder of the previous presidency, made enlargement an almost exclusive concern, and is generally seen as having made marked progress on the issue. But given enlargement's relatively low priority on the Belgian agenda, candidate countries may not expect to see any major changes over the next six months.