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EU: Smaller Countries Mobilize Against Franco-German Proposal

The recent Franco-German proposal outlining a joint vision of the institutional balance in the European Union after enlargement -- largely backed by the third major EU power, Britain -- came under heavy fire at yesterday's meeting of the Convention on the Future of Europe. An alliance of predominantly smaller EU member states and candidate countries object to the plan to create a dual EU presidency and demand equality with bigger members. Both France and Germany today remained firm in the face of criticism.

Brussels, 21 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Although other EU member states tend to grumble when the Franco-German "engine" driving EU integration forward stutters, most of them seem equally unappreciative when it picks up speed.

Last week, France and Germany put aside long-standing differences on the future institutional balance of the EU, signing a joint document proposing that there be two powerful offices -- the president of the European Commission and the president of the Council of Ministers.

The proposal attracted heavy criticism from most speakers yesterday and today at the EU's convention debating the bloc's future.

A clear majority of representatives from EU member states and candidate countries warned that a dual presidency would be a recipe for institutional conflict. Politicians from smaller countries especially expressed fears that a council president would sideline his colleague from the commission, and tilt the scales of influence irredeemably towards the bigger member states.

John Bruton, the former prime minister of Ireland who was speaking for the Irish Dail (parliament), warned yesterday that both democracy and transparency in EU decision-making are in danger. "First, [the Franco-German proposal] will upset the balance of institutions and undermine the separation of powers between them, which is so vital for Europe's success. Secondly, [it] fails to respond sufficiently to the citizens' demand that they themselves as citizens and voters decide democratically on who governs Europe," Bruton said.

Ireland is playing a leading role in organizing resistance to the Franco-German proposal. Representatives of Ireland, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Luxembourg, Austria, the Netherlands, Greece, and Portugal have met repeatedly under the auspices of a group known informally as Friends of the Community Approach. Last week, Estonia and Slovenia were co-opted, with Hungary and the Czech Republic to follow.

However, the group is far from homogeneous. For example, while Sweden and Denmark say they are ready to contemplate a council president provided his or her role and jurisdiction are clarified, the Finnish government representative yesterday said an "elitist president figure" does not belong in the 21st century.

While the candidate countries pay lip service to the "community approach," their main fear is that a permanent council president would put an end to the present practice of rotating the EU presidency every six months, a system in which every nation is guaranteed its moment in the sun.

Among others, this point was made by the Estonian government representative, Henrik Hololei. "I believe that the system of rotation is the only one guaranteeing the true equality of member states -- big and small, northern and southern. This system ensures that every member state has the right to chair the European Union -- the most powerful form of cooperation of states in the world -- giving every member state an international visibility, stressing the European values of equality and solidarity," he said.

At the same time, most candidate countries register strong reservations when it comes to other measures enhancing the "community dimension," such as abolishing the national veto right in foreign affairs, defense, and immigration matters.

None of them gives much time for complaints advanced by more federally minded member states -- like the Benelux countries -- that the Franco-German plan threatens to leave the commission in charge of economic policy, while all other important business would be conducted by member states.

Most candidate countries are also not very enthusiastic about a merger of the roles of the EU's security and foreign policy coordinator, Javier Solana, and the external relations commissioner, Chris Patten.

Both France and Germany were unrepentant today.

French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin said an EU facing a world where "peace and war are at stake" needs the sort of stability provided by the Franco-German proposal. "I have heard the reservations and fears that have been expressed, and would like to address them this morning, proceeding from my European convictions. To those who fear a rivalry between the president of the EU Council [of Ministers] and the president of the [European] Commission, my response is that such a rivalry will not happen, as their functions are, and will remain, different. The president of the council will direct the activities of the heads of state and government and represent the EU abroad. The president of the commission will chair the work of his institution and act as a trustee of the common interest in the EU."

De Villepin said an EU where the presidency changed hands every six months would be "difficult to understand" for both the outside world and its own citizens.

Germany's Joschka Fischer echoed much the same message, noting that the EU needs "a quantum leap" in cooperation if it is to function effectively after enlargement.

Final decisions on the issue will be left to an "intergovernmental conference" later this year, or possibly in the first half of next year, where all member states will have the right of veto.