EC meets to hammer out budget, policy problems

He is normally the diplomat's diplomat, eschewing hyperbole for hyper-calm. But earlier this month Belgium's foreign minister, L'eo Tindemans, lost it. ``Europe is not going well,'' he huffed. ``I feel like giving up.''

The source of Mr. Tindemans's despair lay in the continuing failure of European Community (EC) government ministers to resolve their perennial squabbles over financing and get on with the broader business of building a better Europe.

After months of acrimonious debate among agriculture and finance ministers, heads of government from the 12 EC nations will gather here today and tomorrow - as one observer put it hopefully - ``to take the bull by the horns.''

Three problems need urgent attention, officials here point out: this year's yawning budget shortfall (some $6 billion); excessive spending on agricultural production (which eats up more than two-thirds of the EC's $42 billion budget); and reform of the community's financing system for next year and beyond.

No one believes that EC leaders will spend this two-day meeting deciding how much to spend, and on what. In fact, the EC foreign ministers this past week abandoned any effort to tackle the details of the community's budget crisis. In a preparatory meeting for the summit, the ministers decided to create an agenda that would address the crisis only in general terms. But the leaders will be called on to break the EC's policymaking logjam - ``to lay down the thrust of future development,'' as Jacques Delors, the European Commission president, put it earlier this month.

The current dispute within the EC runs broadly along north-south lines. Britain and other northern nations refuse to further fill the EC coffers until there's an agreement to halt agricultural overspending and adhere to stricter budgetary discipline. Southern countries like Spain, Portugal, and Greece say the EC's rich north should do even more for the poor south.

Earlier this year, Mr. Delors set off on a tour of EC capitals to try to sell a plan drafted by the European Commission - the EC's policy-proposing body - to increase resources and introduce a system of strict budget discipline. But that plan was shot down quickly by rich EC member countries as unworkable. Then this past week, Belgian Prime Minister Wilfried Martens, the summit's host, followed Delors's footsteps - this time in search of compromise among governments. He found nothing much new.

Some reports suggest that West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl - whose government has been holding up agreement on proposals to cut EC farm prices, arguing that a slash in farmers's incomes would be devastating - plans to counter critics by presenting a package of new measures at the summit aimed at closing this year's budget gap.

Beyond that, there is little hope here that the summit will beat a path through the thicket of conflict to point the way to new horizons of unity, even though the stakes for not doing so continue to rise.

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