Wed, 21 Jun 2000

EU summit may be the calm before storm

By Udo Bergdoll

BONN (DPA): The two-day European Union (EU) summit this week in Feira in northern Portugal may seem to EU leaders like the calm in eye of a hurricane preceding their December meeting in Nice, where, under French leadership, they will have to thrash out structural changes to the EU agreements.

If they fail to do that, then the Union's plans for eastward enlargement will collapse. Unless its leaders tailor its structures to accommodate an EU enlarged to include central and eastern Europe, Brussels will be paralyzed, unable to accomplish anything.

Europe will remain a torso, its arms and legs cut off by poverty lines running along the Oder and Neisse rivers, the post- World War II boundary between the western and eastern blocs.

Even an interim summit like the one in Feira needn't be a boring one. The Portuguese presidency has given the summit an exciting theme -- "flexibility" -- and the pressing question of whether the EU will allow the existence of a "core Europe" to help put some muscle into the drive for European integration.

Under current EU rules, a group of eager members can only pull ahead of the rest of the EU if all the members agree. Berlin has advocated that, almost without exception, an advance guard be allowed to press on regardless, as long as at least eight EU members belong to the group.

Smaller EU members, especially the Scandinavian countries, fear that practice could marginalize EU members less willing to rush headlong into integration. Now that Germany and France have appointed themselves as the "powerhouses of the EU," Britain and Spain have assumed the job of representing the other group of EU members.

When the topic of "flexible co-operation" comes up, the real subject is developing a master plan for the EU of the future, an EU that will probably have grown to embrace 30 members including Poland, the Baltic states and Rumania.

The 15 European leaders know they are likely in Feira to avoid some of the questions left unanswered in the Amsterdam treaty, questions about the number of commissioners or how to weight the votes of smaller and larger countries.

That is no oversight -- the leaders want to leave the touchy job of breaking out of the traps that national pride can set to diplomatically experienced and influential France rather than saddling Portugal with it. Even Berlin will be only too happy to leave that job to Paris.

Germany is keeping an even lower profile in the debate on lifting the bilateral sanctions against Austria -- they'll follow someone else, but they aren't about to lead the pack themselves in tackling that thorny problem.

The number of EU governments questioning the wisdom and fairness of ostracizing Vienna just because an Austrian far-right-wing, rabble-rousing party managed to become part of the governing coalition has been climbing steadily.

The Portuguese suggested using the Feira summit to "open a window to Austria" -- they want to minimize the damage that a political donnybrook over that hot potato could do to the reputation of their summit.

In fact, the French, who will probably have to deal with the Austria problem at their summit in December, seem to have started looking for a way to end the sanctions without losing face themselves.