EU leaders fight shy of closer union

Major can hope for an easy ride at the meeting in Majorca, reports Sarah Helm
Formentor - There will be good news for John Major when European leaders gather for their summit in Majorca today. The meeting is likely to put the brakes on plans for further European integration, amid confusion about the future path of the union and growing public scepticism about the power of Brussels.

The summit, hosted by Spain, holder of the EU presidency, had been billed as a crucial meeting where the agenda would be set for next year's inter- governmental conference (IGC) on the revision of EU machinery. Instead the weekend will be a brainstorming session on the EU's direction, rather than laying down a blueprint for reform. The IGC is charged with ensuring that EU institutions can operate effectively once the Union has gained new members in Eastern and Central Europe, potentially expanding its number to 30.

Important institutional changes were expected to be on the IGC agenda, including a curbing of national vetos and more powers for Brussels to implement common policies incriminal justice, defence and foreign affairs.

The IGC appeared certain to cause trouble for Mr Major. So ambitious was the agenda that it was predicted the conference would run on until 1997, coinciding with the next British general election, which must be held by May 1997.

However, France made it clear yesterday that it saw a narrower agenda for the IGC, and a timetable finishing before the end of 1996. The European Commission, which had called for important changes including more majority voting, is being marginalised - its voice is hardly heard. No policy conclusion will be issued at the meeting, although the discussions will influence the Madrid summit, which concludes the Spain's presidency in December.

European federalists accuse heads of government of ducking challenges they promised to tackle a few months ago, and of ensuring that the conference on EU reform will be stillborn.

Failure to move towards political union could also throwmonetary union into question, the critics say. Even some members of the European Commission are asking whether the IGC is worth holding.

Earlier this year the demand for institutional change was strong, with only Britain voicing doubts. The Maastricht treaty, it was agreed, needed review. If the EU was to take firm decisions over foreign policy, justice and home affairs, more majority voting would be needed. Germany stressed that greater political unity must go hand in hand with monetary union, due to enter its final stage in 1999. The prospect of enlarging the EU to bring in Eastern and Central European states appeared to necessitate a more centralised decision-making process.

Several factors have since stalled the drive towards more integration. Evidence has grown of public disillusion with the EU. Several member states are committed to holding referendums on the IGC conclusions, and leaders fear the results.

The failure of EU leadership in the Balkans has revealed that talk of common foreign policies remains empty rhetoric. The US lead today in Bosnia has shown that Europe's defence remains in Nato's hands.

The election of Jacques Chirac as French President has brought about a more pragmatic approach in Paris, where the government faces economic problems in the run-up to monetary union. German Chancellor Helmut Kohl has also tempered his push forl union.

The European Commission has tried to keep the reforming drive on track. But there is evidence of disarray in the "reflection group" set up to consider the IGC agenda. The French and Germans have noticed the ferment in Britain over political union, and have moved to ease Mr Major's path.