Balladur tries to allay fears on two-speed EU

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The Independent Online
Edouard Balladur, the French Prime Minister, yesterday promised new proposals on European construction before France takes over the European Union presidency on 1 January. Although he did not spell them out, diplomats said they could attempt to reassure nations worried by German talk of a 'two-speed' Europe.

In an interview with the conservative daily Figaro, Mr Balladur also took a swipe at Jacques Chirac, his Gaullist rival for the French presidency, and hinted that he might not stand when Francois Mitterrand's term ends in May.

Next year, Mr Balladur said, one of his government's priorities would be to give a new impetus to the EU. French politicians have refrained from endorsing the German Christian Democrats' recent proposals for a hard-core Europe based on France, Germany and the Benelux countries. Mr Balladur, in an interview on foreign policy in Le Figaro in August, said enlargement would mean 'a Europe at several speeds, at least for a transitory period'.

Yesterday Mr Balladur said he had not reacted to the Christian Democrats' ideas because they came from a political party and not from a government.

They angered Spain, which fears a northern-dominated Europe, and Italy.

Felipe Gonzalez, the Spanish Prime Minister, sought reassurances during a summit with Mr Mitterrand and Mr Balladur in France last week.

'In a few days France is going to make proposals,' Mr Balladur said.

'Parliament will debate them at the beginning of December. So things will go fast.' EU diplomats in Paris said there had been a series of discussions with French officials recently 'on nuts-and- bolts issues, mainly technical discussions on the costs of enlargement' to a 16-member Union. But their French counterparts had said nothing to suggest that Paris was preparing spectacular initiatives.

These sources suggested Mr Balladur's proposals might concentrate on moves to ensure the stability of European frontiers in the east and, given the misgivings about a 'hard core', an allowance for 'variable geometry'. Thus Britain or Spain might take a leading defence role while delaying on monetary union.

Mr Balladur said the EU could only make real progress once its members had accepted majority voting, which would end individual countries' power to block decisions. He conceded that this was currently impossible. 'We can only go forward if we all accept a majority principle. But we're not there yet.'

Mr Balladur had harsh words for Mr Chirac, the president of his own Gaullist RPR party. A recent book about relations between the two men said Mr Balladur did not return a call from Mr Chirac last New Year's Day because he believed Mr Chirac had not supported him on difficult policy issues, particularly when the franc had been under attack the previous September.

'I think he (Mr Chirac) shared my determination to hold firm,' Mr Balladur told Le Figaro yesterday. 'But he kept quiet so as not to displease anyone in the RPR. Jacques, for some time, has shut himself in his party as if it were a citadel.' This remark followed a public spat last week when Mr Chirac declined an invitation from Mr Balladur to discuss problems over recent corruption scandals and tried unsuccessfully to persuade the Prime Minister to attend a meeting with RPR leaders.

Remedies and red tape, page 27