EU meets to tackle thorny issues
By CNN European Political Editor Robin Oakley
GOTHENBURG, Sweden (CNN) -- European Union leaders are gathering again to seek to make progress on EU enlargement, economic reform and conflict resolution.
They may not find it any easier, though, agreeing on some of Europe's key concerns than they did trying to persuade U.S. President George W. Bush to see things their way on the environment.
The gulf between the U.S. and Europe was apparent over both sides' approach to the Kyoto Protocol, which is aimed at reducing emissions of carbon dioxide that contribute to global warming.
It was negotiated by the U.S. and major industrialised nations and is backed by the EU, but Bush has since rejected it.
Swedish Prime Minister Goran Persson is playing down differences between the EU and the U.S. over global warming at what was Bush's first summit with European leaders.
As anti-U.S. protesters clashed with police outside the summit in Gothenburg, Persson told a news conference on Thursday: "The European Union sticks to the Kyoto Protocol and (will) go for a ratification process."
"The U.S. has chosen another policy. But we have the same targets and we have to meet the same problems. So ... we agreed to disagree about substance."
Bush, who travels to Poland on Friday on the next stage of his five-day European tour, reiterated his opposition to the accord. "We didn't feel like the Kyoto treaty was well balanced," he said.
Issues to be discussed during the sessions on Friday and Saturday include economic reform, the EU's foreign and security policy, peace-keeping plans, and the conflicts in Macedonia and the Middle East.
But the Swedes, in the final stages of their six month EU presidency, have made EU enlargement a priority and they will want to pursue that at Friday's summit in Gothenburg.
They have been keen to crystallize a timetable for the admission of some of the more prosperous countries among the dozen currently negotiating entry.
The "road map" for enlargement, agreed at the December summit in Nice, envisages the leading candidates being admitted in time to participate in the next round of European Parliament elections in 2004.
But the closer those countries are coming to entry the tougher the negotiations are becoming.
EU countries which have been net beneficiaries from the 15-nation group's present funding arrangements have been trying to drive a hard bargain or to hang on to their benefits.
Others have been seeking special protection from problems which they fear enlargement would bring to their economies.
Workers in EU countries are supposed to be free to compete for jobs anywhere in the union on equal terms.
But Germany and Austria, fearful of a flood of lowly paid workers in potential new member countries like Poland crossing their borders and driving down wage levels, have demanded a seven year transition period.
Through that time there would be no freedom of entry for workers from newly admitted members. The European Commission supported them and an agreement was on the way.
A similar restriction was placed on workers in Spain and Portugal when they first joined the EU.
But then the Spanish threw a Hispanic monkey wrench into the works, threatening to block any such arrangement for their own reasons.
With many poor regions, where income levels are below 75 percent of the EU, the Spanish are currently due to enjoy 68 percent of the EU's structural and regional aid funds from 2000 to 2006.
They demanded guarantees that they would keep the bulk of such funding even when poorer eastern European countries with a greater claim under the rules joined the EU and said they would block the restriction on workers sought by the Germans if they did not get their way.
Sweden's normally good-tempered Foreign Minister Anna Lindh was furious, saying: "It is irresponsible to link these kind of questions."
But within days Giulio Tremonti, since confirmed as Italy's Finance Minister in Silvio Berlusconi's new government, was declaring: "If there are no compensations for the Mezzogiorno (Italy's poor southern region) then Italy will ask that the enlargement eastwards be slowed down."
Next into the game was France, with warnings about calls from others for radical reform of the Common Agricultural policy, which takes up more than 45 percent of the EU budget and from which France is one of the biggest gainers.
As the richer existing EU members seek to change the rules to safeguard their benefits, the applicant countries that have been forcing painful changes through their economies in order to qualify for admission to the club are becoming increasingly resentful. Some are finding a growing proportion of Eurosceptics among their previously enthusiastic populations.
The growing controversies over enlargement as the stickier issues reach the negotiating table have been highlighted by the referendum in Ireland where electors threw out the Nice Treaty which made changes in the EU constitution to help cope with the enlargement process.
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