Sat, 09 Dec 2000

Chirac under pressure to succeed at Nice summit

By Shada Islam and Leon Mangasarian

NICE, France (DPA): Battered by a domestic party-finance scandal and allegations of poor preparation, French President Jacques Chirac is under massive pressure to make the European Union reform summit in Nice a success.

"We need clear decisions here -- otherwise we're going to end up at a dead end," warned German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, as quoted by delegation sources, after the four-day meeting opened.

Chirac kicked off the marathon meeting by hosting 29 leaders from the European Union (EU) and applicant states.

Following talks with the impatient leaders of mainly East European would-be members, the 15 EU heads of state and government were due to begin hard-nosed horse-trading on internal reforms essential for enlargement.

EU leaders arrived at Nice were sharply divided over three issues: curbing the use of national vetoes which paralyze decision- making; reweighing votes in the bloc which currently favor smaller members; and limiting growth of the 20-member European Commission.

Adding to Chirac's woes is a German bid to break its current parity status with France and formally seal its top-dog position as the bloc's most populous member with the most powerful economy.

Berlin and Paris currently have 10 votes each in the EU Council of Ministers but Germany has indicated it wants an additional three given that its population of 82 million is far bigger than France's 58 million.

Chirac's firm rejection of this German demand has contributed to the cliffhanger atmosphere at Nice.

In a sign of Franco-German discord, Chirac and Schroeder skipped their traditional pre-summit breakfast in Nice.

As if the knotty EU reform problems were not enough, Chirac is facing growing demands to come clean on the finance scandal which has rocked his conservative RPR party. So far Chirac has used the summit as an excuse to avoid addressing the scandal.

The French President's Nice preparations have been further complicated by the tense "cohabitation" with French Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin. The two men are likely to face off as candidates in France's 2002 presidential election.

Commenting on the French political tangles, the Paris daily Le Monde called the French EU presidency: "Six months of political schizophrenia by Chirac and Jospin."

There has been broad disappointment over French preparations for the EU summit.

"Chirac enjoys being president of the EU but he makes up the rules for himself as he goes along while ignoring opposition of the other 14 members," said the Berlin newspaper Die Welt.

Die Welt said the key problem was that Chirac was unwilling to make compromises and refused to sacrifice France's national interests.

Karel van Miert, a former Belgian European Commissioner, was scathing in assessing the French presidency: "On all subjects the French have defended their own interests. In the past the French at least tried to find a balance between the interests of the Union and national interests."

As crack French CRS riot police tear-gassed anti-globalization protesters in the streets outside the summit venue, Chirac may also have been wondering why he insisted on holding the summit in the legendary Riviera resort.

But given combined French domestic pressure and concerns that collapse of the Nice summit would pitch Europe into crisis, diplomats said Chirac was almost damned to lead the meeting to success.

As the summit opened there were rays of hope for the embattled French leader.

"We had a very successful session, it was well handled," said Keith Vaz, Britain's minister for Europe, referring to the meeting with the European candidates.

Michel Barnier, EU Commissioner responsible for reform, said "Leaders are in the mood to get a correct agreement to open enlargement under good conditions."