Old guard gets a wake-up call from the new kids on the bloc

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Series Details Vol.7, No.25, 21.6.01, p4
Publication Date 21/06/2001
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Date: 21/06/01

By John Shelley

FRESH faces are not an unusual sight at EU summits. Among the long-serving stalwarts there is often a newly-elected president or couple of new prime ministers. At Göteborg, though, there were an unprecedented 14 new boys.

Lining up alongside the Chiracs and Blairs were the leaders of all the countries vying to join the EU.

A motley and all-male band representing everyone from tiny Malta, home to 400,000 people, to massive Poland, with a population of 38. 7 million.

Some might say that the EU's old guard needed a wake-up call - and they got it. Not just from the protesters creating mayhem outside the summit hall but also, more constructively, from the new kids on the bloc.

Swedish premier Göran Persson had always sold Göteborg as an enlargement summit, the place where leaders would give the expansion process the push it so badly needed.

Indeed it was just that, with the Swedes clinching an important, if technically small, step forward in firming up the timetable for accession.

But their smartest move was inviting the EU leaders of tomorrow. It gave the old and new a chance to have a good, close look at each other. For much of the media, too, it was their first chance to see all the applicants together en masse.

It was a chance to get a flavour of what European Council meetings and the European Union will be like after the now "irreversible" expansion has taken place.

There was the aggressive Czech delegation, the solemn Slovakians and the exuberant Polish. Even Turkey's officious and defiant-looking leader Bülent Ecevit was there, despite his country's membership still likely to be many years off.

The applicant countries accounted for 13 of the new faces, but what of the fourteenth? A new addition whose behaviour was being watched with even more apprehension - one signore Silvio Berlusconi.

For Italy's new prime minister this was an important opportunity to show that he was not the right-wing eurosceptic many of his fellow EU leaders suspected.

He had allayed some of these fears at the NATO Council in Brussels the day before, but he put his foot in it early on at Göteborg after reputedly bragging to President Bush that he had finally wiped the communists off the Italian political map.

His comments irritated many of the predominantly socialist EU leaders, who did not take kindly to this characterisation of the previous Italian administration with which they had shared largely warm relations.

For the rest of the weekend, though, billionaire Berlusconi appeared to keep his head down and Luxembourg's Jean-Claude Junker for one stressed that he had not seen any behaviour that would warrant the term eurosceptic.

From the start, Persson stressed his objective was to make sure the visiting leaders did not feel let down when they arrived. "We will go so far that everyone round the table can meet with the applicant countries and be proud of the result," he said. This pressure may have been a major factor in brokering the deal that was finally reached, setting the target for the first round of applicants to join the EU by 2004.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, initially backed by the French, had resisted a firm timetable for accession and was edging away from the "hope" expressed at Nice that some applicants should be able to take part in European Parliamentary elections in 2004.

A likely outcome had seemed a deal that would say applicants were expected to take part in these elections, but leave open the possibility this could be in preparation for full EU membership rather than after it.

Heavily outnumbered, Schröder backed down and instead, in a considerable victory for the Swedes, the Göteborg wording stresses the "objective" should be that countries take part in these elections - and as fully-fledged Union members.

Schröder was reluctant to commit to exact dates for fear that Poland, currently struggling in accession negotiations, would be left out of the first enlargement wave.

If the Poles were the losers, they certainly were not showing it. Prime Minister Jerzy Buzak's press conference was probably the most flamboyant and exciting of the entire summit.

In extraordinary scenes, Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, initially downcast in the light of his country's rejection of the Nice Treaty , showed up for a double act with Warsaw's number one. He made an impassioned plea for the Polish people not to be offended by Ireland's decision, insisting his countrymen would welcome them into the Union.

Even after the Irish premier left, the Polish show went on with Foreign Minister Wladyslaw Bartoszewski bringing the assembled media close to tears of laughter with a frenetic monologue.

The eccentric septuagenarian castigated his people for their negativity, pointing out it was absurd to first moan that the EU leaders had failed to set a date for enlargement and then, because of fears Poland might not be ready in time, complain when they finally did. "Let's get a grip, let's decide on what we really want," he declared.

Other applicants also praised the Göteborg agreement. "I came to this meeting with some trepidation as while my country has been making very good progress over the last 16 to 17 months we felt that the results of the referendum in Ireland could be some setback," said Maltese Prime Minister Edward Fenech Adami. "On the contrary. . . I think that the result that we have seen in this declaration is that there is added commitment. "

While the message was often the same, moving between the cramped briefing rooms to which the enlargement countries were relegated was like stepping across the borders themselves.

The standard, nice but dull, EU presentation is something many of the applicants have not yet latched onto. The Slovakians were Cold-War stern, squeaky-voiced Estonian Prime Minister Mart Laar was avuncular while irascible Czech premier Milos Zeman seemed to regard journalists' questions as an obstacle preventing from him doing his job.

So did Göteborg represent a real breakthrough? Not really. It was more a case of the EU's leaders keeping to their promises on enlargement rather than making new ones. Nonetheless, by sticking to their targets, they have made the once seemingly distant possibility of an EU expansion by 2004 now look more like a probability.

One thing seems certain, though. When the candidate countries finally do join the bloc, European Council meetings are going to be a whole lot more colourful.

  • IT was agreed that enlargement negotiations for some countries should be completed by the end of 2002 with the objective of these countries taking part in European Parliament elections in 2004 as members. The leaders agreed to make sustainable development a key priority, so that environmental objectives will now be included alongside the social and economic goals agreed at Lisbon in 2000.
  • Also agreed was the need to launch a new round of global trade talks in November. But . . . no decision was made on where to locate the European Food Safety Authority, due to be up and running next year. No agreement was reached on a one-stop-shop system for registering patents. No significant progress was made on plans to harmonise air traffic control across Europe, the "Single European Sky".

Major feature on the European Council, Gothenburg, 15-16 June 2001, focusing in particular on the enlargement issue.

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