EU commissioner casts new doubt on enlargement

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Europe's commitment to expanding eastwards was thrown into new doubt at the weekend by a surprise call for a referendum in Germany before the enlargement is allowed to go ahead.

Europe's commitment to expanding eastwards was thrown into new doubt at the weekend by a surprise call for a referendum in Germany before the enlargement is allowed to go ahead.

The comments from Günther Verheugen, the European Commissioner responsible for negotiating with candidate countries, provoked diplomatic dismay. It was disowned by EU foreign ministers and Romano Prodi, the European Commission's president.

Mr Verheugen, who is one of Germany's two European commissioners, is a former Europe minister. "Especially in Germany, we must not repeat the mistake we made with the euro. It was introduced behind the backs of the population," he told the Süddeutche Zeitung newspaper.

"I was for a referendum at that time. It would have forced the élites to come out of their ivory towers and campaign for the euro in a dialogue with the people." With one recent survey showing that 68 per cent of Germans do not believe enlargement to be a priority, Mr Verheugen's words underlined a potential threat to a process with which applicant countries are becoming increasingly disenchanted.

The German Foreign Minister, Joschka Fischer, and his French counterpart, Hubert Védrine, moved quickly to try to reassure applicant countries. "It's not a position of the federal government," Mr Fischer said at a gathering of EU foreign ministers in Evian, France, adding that Mr Verheugen's idea was "not thought through".

Mr Prodi, who telephoned Mr Verheugen for an explanation, said further "clarifications" would be needed to make sure future statements did not undermine the confidence of applicants. He did not want "this small misunderstanding" to give "a wrong message to the candidate countries", he added.

The first enlargement is scheduled to take place between 2003 and 2005, and the 15-strong EU bloc could eventually swell to 28 countries. But the issue is becoming a political football in Germany, where many fear the economic effects of an influx of cheaper goods and labour.

Gerhard Schröder, the German Chancellor, has called for a second change to the treaty to take place around 2004, before enlargement, prompting warnings from Britain that there must be no delay to the timetable for admitting new countries. With EU member states already bogged down in negotiations for expansion, applicant countries are becoming increasingly exasperated. Mr Verheugen's spokesman said he envisaged a general referendum on the "enlargement process" but added: "Those who understand this as a manoeuvre to delay the process have missed the point. Whatever the opinion polls say it is important to enter into dialogue."

The European Commission has no role in deciding whether EU member states hold a referendum on big policy issues. Mr Verheugen's idea would probably require a change to the German constitution and is regarded as politically unworkable.

Meanwhile Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, warned against ideas put forward by the French President, Jacques Chirac, for a two-speed Europe with the countries most committed to integration at the core. Such ideas would provoke anxiety among applicant countries and existing EU member states that fear they would be excluded, he argued.

* Austria's Foreign Minister, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, said in Evian yesterday that the three "wise men" studying Austria's human rights record would hand their report to the French President by the end of this week. But France, the EU president, expected the report to take a few days longer and no EU country seemed sure what to do with it once presented.

Ms Ferrero-Waldner said she hoped the sanctions, imposed in February after the far-right Freedom Party entered the Vienna government, could be lifted before Denmark's referendum on joining the single currency on September 28.