Plan for Euro-Unity Wobbles Forward After Key Summit
EU leaders patch deals together to keep monetary union and expansion on track
AMSTERDAM — It may be remembered as the bicycle summit. At this week's gathering of European Union leaders in Amsterdam, each visiting head of government was presented with a shiny new silver bike.
However apt a symbol of Amsterdam, a modest and relaxed city of canals and bridges, a bicycle is also something that must keep moving forward if it is not to fall over. By the summit's end, the participants had shown ample skill at moving forward with their union too - slowly, but just fast enough not to wobble out of control altogether.
After a marathon negotiating session extending into the small hours of Wednesday, Dutch Prime Minister Wim Kok announced "complete agreement on the text of the Treaty of Amsterdam." It would, among other things, prepare the European Union for a historic transformation: a start on expansion of the EU to include up to a dozen new members, mostly from Central and Eastern Europe.
But the leaders of the EU were able to agree only by deciding not to decide on some sensitive issues. These include so-called institutional reforms, such as changing the size of the European Commission, the EU's executive body. With 20 commissioners, it already is seen as unwieldy. The 15 member nations agreed that as soon as the EU grows to more than 20 members, large countries that now have two commissioners will each give up one. But no formula was reached to compensate them, virtually ensuring another conference to settle the matter.
All these tiny, wobbly steps forward by the EU sometimes bemuse Americans. Still, many experienced Europe-watchers contend that Europe accomplishes more with its incremental approach than it gets credit for.
Take the issue of new members, which now may stretch into the next century. Moves to include new democracies to the east seem stuck in molasses. But an eye to history shows the negotiations that led to admitting Spain and Portugal a few years back themselves took five years.
The EU leaders here reached a face-saving compromise on a key conflict between France and Germany over a German-inspired "stability pact" intended to ensure the soundness of the new European currency, the euro. But it also became clearer than ever that this issue of monetary union will be the preoccupation of the EU for the foreseeable future.
The EU said a summit on unemployment and the economy would be held in Luxembourg within six months. The focus on employment partly reflects the severity of joblessness in Europe and partly the desire for the EU to be associated with issues that make a difference in ordinary people's lives.
Another "citizen friendly" aspect in the new treaty is the greater voice and responsibility given the European Parliament.
For the French and the Germans, deepening political integration, including common foreign and security policy, is the stated goal of the EU. Over the years they have accused the British of wanting an EU that is only a glorified free-trade zone.
Flexibility is one way the new treaty allows for Europe to keep moving forward without being held back by individual states that refuse to take part in a given program. Britain, Ireland, and Denmark, for example, are choosing to "opt out" of a provision that essentially does away with internal border controls.
One Franco-German proposal would have strengthened the EU's common foreign policy by naming a high-level figure as "Mr. or Ms. Foreign Policy," who would act almost as an EU foreign minister. Former French President Valry Giscard d'Estaing had been mentioned for the job. But after resistance from Britain and others, the position was filled by a civil servant close to German Chancellor Helmut Kohl - but also close to retirement.
Another Franco-German proposal at Amsterdam would have had the Western European Union, a never-activated defense organization, cooperate closely with the EU and ultimately merge with it, enabling Europe to deal with security problems without NATO. Britain and Denmark, loath to do anything to undermine NATO, led a move that quashed the plan.
"European foreign policy is not always the fastest foreign policy; in fact, it's not fast at all," says a non-EU diplomat here, seeing the glass half-full.
"But it is a foreign policy, which, 15 or 20 years ago, you couldn't have said."