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EU expansion tops summit agenda

Bush
With Bush and his team gone, EU leaders get down to thorny business  


By CNN European Political Editor Robin Oakley

GOTHENBURG, Sweden -- With President George W. Bush off to Poland on Friday, he has left EU leaders with unresolved conflicts of their own.

Bush's visit to the Gothenburg summit -- one leg on his first visit to Europe as president -- focused on the environment and his rejection of the Kyoto Treaty on greenhouse gas missions.

EU leaders scorned Bush's offer of further investment in climate change research and new technology to cut carbon dioxide emissions, saying they wanted action, not words.

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EU Summit - Gothenburg, Sweden
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But the Kyoto impasse with the U.S. is just one of a host of issues confronting E.U. leaders. With Bush gone, they will knuckle down on Friday to normal summit business, seeking to make progress on EU enlargement, economic reform and conflict resolution.

It's an agenda fraught with conflict.

The leaders may not find it any easier agreeing on some of Europe’s key concerns, than they did trying to persuade Bush to see things their way on the environment.

The Swedes, in the final stages of their six month EU presidency, have made EU enlargement a priority. They have been keen to crystallise 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.

Chorus of concerns

The European commission supported them and an agreement was on the way. A similar restriction had been placed on workers in Spain and Portugal when they first joined the EU. But then the Spanish threw a Hispanic money wrench into the works, threatening to block any such arrangement for their own reasons.

Spain, with many poor regions where income levels are below 75 per cent of the EU, is currently due to enjoy 68 per cent of the EU’s structural and regional aid funds from 2000 to 2006.

The Spanish 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. Spain said it 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 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 per cent 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 who 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, another big beneficiary until now from regional funds.

Irish electors tossed out the Nice Treaty, the treaty which made changes in the EU constitution to help cope with the enlargement process.

Bertie Ahern, the embarrassed Irish Prime Minister, will make an opening statement when the EU leaders get down to the thorny question of enlargement at the summit under the leadership of Goran Persson, the Swedish Prime Minister.

There was an early attempt to stiffen the resolve of the EU leaders over Ireland’s rejection of the Nice Treaty.

Nicole Fontaine, the President of the European Parliament, told them in her opening address to the Gothenburg meeting not to water down the provisions of the treaty. She said: “Whatever clarifications -- particularly with regard to the issue of Irish participation in the European Intervention Force -- are made in order to allay the concerns, whether real or unfounded, which led to the 'No' vote, those clarifications must not lure the Union into the shifting sands of compromise agreements, let alone exit clauses.”

Fontaine said that the warning signal from a member state “of irreproachable European credentials” needed to be heard, although the low turnout made it hard to interpret what exactly was being said.

But she urged the other leaders to show solidarity by pressing ahead with ratification of Nice in their own Parliaments.

Other issues to be discussed during the sessions on Friday and Saturday include economic reform, the EU’s foreign and security policy, peace-keeping plans, Macedonia and the Middle East.





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