Leaders at odds over EU's aims

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The Independent Online


The European summit opened here yesterday in division and acrimony as doubts intensified over monetary union and leaders clashed over the fundamental aims of the European Union.

Heads of government appeared confused over how to organise next year's Inter-Governmental Conference (IGC) on EU reform, and the European Commission seemed defensive and angry over the minimalist approach, called for by Britain, and now winning some support from France, and even Germany.

The 15 leaders did agree on one thing: that the EU must win back support from ordinary European people. But there was no consensus on how this should be done. Holed up in their hotel on the Formentor promontory, the leaders were unable to take any advice from Majorca's holidaymakers or to hear the drubbing their summitry was receiving on the beaches.

"What's it all about? A waste of our money. Europe? A waste of bloody time," was how one elderly British woman summed up the mood.

John Major argued that reaching out to the citizen should involve fighting against "rhetoric and dogma", saying that more institutional change would alienate and confuse the citizens further. The EU should be wary of "absorbing all its energy in a turf battle" at next year's IGC, "thereby fiddling while Europe burns", was how one Downing Street source summarised the Prime Minister's position on the matter yesterday.

At the other end of the spectrum, Jacques Santer, President of the European Commission, argued that major changes to the EU's institutions and decision- making machinery were the only way to build a workable union. "No to minimalist approach," Mr Santer told the heads of government. Without facing up the challenge of far-reaching reform at next year's IGC the union would be unprepared to expand its membership to 30, as intended.

Such were the philosophical differences over how deeply the EU should re-shape itself as the millennium approaches, and how it should adapt to welcome new members, that the chance of any concrete decisions emerging in Majorca appeared slight.

The debate was further soured by rows between specific member states. Germany and Italy were daggers drawn over the suggestions by German that Italy would not be among the first countries to join monetary union. The brutal frankness of the German statement has fuelled fears of German bullying, and set several weaker European states on edge over the single currency. In the conference corridors fears were expressed about whether the Maastricht treaty might have to be re-written to delay the third stage of monetary union or to tighten the economic criteria for joining.

Anger continued to rumble among several member states over French nuclear tests. France is also at odds with its neighbours over its refusal to honour the Schengen agreement which calls for the lifting of border controls.

Meanwhile, for once, Mr Major has cause to celebrate the fact that Britain was not the only state facing the flack at a summit. Furthermore, he had good cause to hope that the Government's wish for a slowing of EU integration is now being fulfilled.

The strongest indication of this came when the core issues over how to tackle next year's IGC appeared to have been put off once again. There was no discussion yesterday of whether the IGC should consider an increase in majority voting, for example, or more powers for the Commission in areas of justice or foreign policy.

Mr Major told leaders that the EU must prepare for taking in new members, but this should be done primarily by ensuring that the union can "afford" enlargement, by overhauling the common agricultural policy and structural funding.

There was no concern that the IGC might extend for so long that it would clash with a British election. "The British government is not particularly fussed about the duration of the IGC," said one Downing Street official.

"IGC? What IGC?," was the tone adopted by Mr Major's advisers at briefings yesterday.