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EU: Key Convention Seeks To Make Enlargement A Working Reality

The European Union's Convention on the Future of Europe starts on 1 March, and politicians around Europe are already moving to ensure their views are represented at this key gathering. The convention, which will last at least a year, will be chaired by former French President Valery Giscard D'Estaing. In the midst of the deliberations will be delegates from the Eastern candidate countries.

Prague, 31 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The name is rather grand: the Convention on the Future of Europe. It has something of a ring of destiny about it.

In fact, the task of the meeting is important enough to justify such a title, for it will map out the structure the European Union will need to function efficiently when it is expanded to some 25 or more members. It will also make recommendations on issues such as how powers should be divided between EU authorities and member states, as well as how the EU can increase its democratic legitimacy.

Political analyst Steven Everts of the Centre for European Reform in London says the task will be a difficult one.

"The challenges of maintaining the [union's] capacity to act will be enormous, because enlargement is [initially likely] to bring in 10 countries, each of which has its own idiosyncratic views, as do the current 15 members. And it is already difficult enough at 15 to formulate meaningful policies."

EU political leaders called for the convention at their Laeken summit last month. In a declaration, they said that, 50 years after its foundation, the European Union now stands at a "defining moment." They said the artificial division of Europe is ending at last and that Europe is on its way to becoming "one big family."

In keeping with this familial feeling, Central and Eastern European candidates for EU membership have been invited to attend the convention and will be able to participate fully in debates. But they will not have any voice in cases in which member states agree on specific recommendations. Those recommendations will then go to an intergovernmental conference, which will make the final decisions in 2004.

Prague-based analyst Petr Drulak of the Czech Institute for International Relations says candidate countries are somewhat disappointed by this restriction:

"In the best of all worlds, [candidate countries] would have the same status, exactly the same status, as all other participants. That didn't happen. The member countries did not agree on that. So it is not a bad deal, but it is not the best deal either."

Drulak says one of the main interests of the Easterners at the convention will be to ensure that small states -- as most of the candidates are -- receive equal treatment in the union. Another preoccupation will be to ensure that new members are treated as fairly as current members.

On a philosophical level, Drulak says candidates need to ponder more deeply where Europe is going.

"All of the candidate countries have to think a bit more about their contribution to European policies, going beyond this rational self-interest. This is something we have to start. It has not been sufficiently reflected until now because our country, [for instance,] has been very much involved in preparation [for EU membership], so the intellectual resources of the country are preoccupied with these preparations, not so much with thinking about our future role."

Analysts tend to think that, despite the talk at Laeken of a "defining" moment in history, the mood among member states is similarly practical rather than visionary. Today, Everts says, there is less of the feeling that EU integration in itself is a worthy goal, as was the case in the 1970s and '80s. He sees today's leaders as less interested in the visionary approach than was the generation of Jacques Delors, the former European Commission president, former French President Francois Mitterrand, and former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl.

Everts says that "decision making is difficult. Member states are prickly and defensive of their perceived interests. They cannot even agree among themselves on where to locate certain agencies. All that tends to support the notion that the union has lost some of the sense of strategic direction that it had earlier."

Analyst Brendan Halligan of the Institute of European Affairs in Dublin thinks along the same lines but goes even further. He says he believes the EU convention will be more about details than grand designs. That's because he cannot identify any single leader at the European level who is proposing a deep form of integration along the lines of a federation.

"I suspect that in a way, the big [philosophical] decisions have already been taken, to this extent, that I do not believe that anybody is actively pushing for major integration along the lines that might bring us towards a federation. I think it has been clear since the Maastricht Treaty of 1992 that the member states do not want to proceed in the direction of [federalism] but that they want to keep the system of shared sovereignty that we currently have. [Although] they certainly want to intensify [cooperation] in certain areas."

Everts agrees that the current pragmatism does not necessarily imply lack of forward movement, but that it is taking place within a limited framework.

"If you look at other, specific areas, the EU is making a lot of progress -- on a common arrest warrant, on all sorts of issues which are related to justice and home affairs. So I think the picture is more mixed than either the sort of doomsday scenario -- namely that the union is breaking down and nothing happens and nothing is successful -- or the opposite [scenario to that]."

Whatever the philosophy of the matter, as the EU convention approaches, politicians of all shades of opinion are making sure their views are concretely represented there. For instance, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has insisted that his rightist political ally, Gianfranco Fini, leader of the post-fascist National Alliance, should attend as the Italian government's representative. Berlusconi, whose cabinet is filled with Euroskeptics, rejected having his government represented by the center-left former prime minister, Giuliano Amato. Amato, who is a vice president of the convention, is a dedicated pro-European.

Similarly, the opposition Labor Party in candidate country Malta has decided to send a delegate, even though it opposes Malta's plans to join the EU.