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EU: For Member States, Barcelona Summit Like Swimming In Choppy Waters

The European Union's Barcelona summit scored "limited but solid" achievements, according to British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Its main aim -- namely, to make Europe the foremost knowledge-based economy in the world by the end of the decade -- was not substantially advanced. But other targets were reached in a way that has become typical for EU -- in fits and starts.

Prague, 19 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Swimmers entering a wide and swift-flowing river usually select a spot where they wish to land on the opposite shore. But then they have to battle the current, and if they make it across at all, they often land in a different and unforeseen place.

European Union summits are somewhat similar. An agenda is set out in advance, but no one really knows what the results of the meeting will be. The interplay of conflicting currents among the 15 members make it impossible to predict how it will end.

With this in mind, it could be said that the Barcelona summit on 16-17 March did not make any sweeping progress toward its key objective, namely to make Europe the foremost knowledge-based economy in the world by the end of the decade. It did not adopt the sort of large-scale reforms aimed at throwing open new markets and increasing job flexibility, as advocated by British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

France and Germany, in particular, are concerned that freeing up job markets to produce the sort of dynamic "hire and fire" flexibility characteristic of the United States would undermine the European model of social welfare. As European Central Bank head Wim Duisenberg mused in an interview with Spain's "El Mundo" newspaper, perhaps there is no way of reconciling those two impulses.

But the summit did agree to a partial deregulation of the electrical power markets, railways, and financial services. In the case of financial services, the summit agreed member states should adopt seven directives in 2002, so as to fully integrate the financial services market EU-wide by 2005.

Barbara Boetcher, a senior analyst with Deutsche Bank Research in Frankfurt, says her bank views this move as particularly important: "There have been studies published recently as to the effects of an integrated market for financial services, and they assume that such a financial services market would add something like 40 billion euros [$35 billion] in additional growth in the European GDP [gross domestic product]."

Boetcher says the creation of an integrated market will bring with it a new pressure for bank mergers and consolidations, as banks seek to take advantage of broadened horizons. She says it will make things easier for financial houses in many ways, allowing them a number of possibilities: "To work across borders, to establish services, to offer services in the different countries, [and] to follow one supervisory standard, rather than to adjust to 15 different supervisory rules in the member countries."

Another pro-integrationist move was the decision to implement by 2004 a Europe-wide air-traffic control system, so as to speed up air travel.

On the Balkans, the summit agreed that the first use of the EU Rapid Reaction Force could be in Macedonia. Leaders agreed to ready the force for peacekeeping duties there, to replace the current NATO force, if continuation of the mission is considered necessary.

The Rapid Reaction Force was declared partly operational at the EU's Laeken summit in December, and its first deployment would be a milestone. Independent military consultant Alexandra Ashbourne, noting that the force is still in an embryonic stage, says that pressing it into use at this early stage shows the EU's commitment to developing a military arm.

But she has her concerns: "My major concern is that I think that the Rapid Reaction Force still lacks the basic tools to be able to successfully implement the peacekeeping duties. Certainly things like radio communications are still poor, things like common armaments, common ordnance, or any weapons that are needed. There is still a problem of transporting the troops to and from Macedonia; that's where the problems lie, and those are the problems which are dogging the development of the European Rapid Reaction Force."

But Ashbourne says one way to sort out these problems is to go ahead with the deployment, and find solutions as the force goes along, rather than to wait until all the difficulties are ironed out in advance.

She says the composition of a Macedonia force will also bear watching. Ashbourne notes that because Britain has just decided to send more troops to Afghanistan, its army is overstretched, and it is already thinking of calling up reserves. It could, therefore, presumably not contribute to a Macedonia force.

She continues: "It would be interesting, whether in an election year, there would be German troops involved. The same with the French, though obviously for France, getting involved in military action, even peacekeeping, is a less contentious issue than it is in Germany. And will some of the smaller European nations contribute forces? It will be interesting to see."

Any use of the Rapid Reaction Force in Macedonia would, in any case, depend on a resolution of the disagreement with Turkey over Ankara's level of participation in the decision-making processes of the force.

Some of the other decisions at the Barcelona summit were for members to boost research and development spending to 3 percent of gross domestic product by 2010, and to provide day care for 90 percent of children of working mothers. They also agreed to set the average retirement age at 65, from 58 -- a move designed to help overstressed pension and health systems cope with aging populations.