Strain on presidency at home and abroad

The EU, joined yesterday by Sweden, Finland and Austria, will not get F rance's undivided attention, says Richard Dowden

France, never slow to offer leadership to Europe, faces three serious drags on its presidency of the European Union for the first half of 1995. No wonder Alain Juppe, the French foreign minister, has stressed continuity as the basis of the French presidency.

The first drawback is the French presidential election at the end of April and the beginning of May. The second is the integration of three new member states - Austria, Sweden and Finland - and the third is the arrival later this month of Jacques Santer,the new Commissioner who is expected to take over from Jacques Delors later this month.

All these factors will prevent France giving the strong lead that one might expect from one of the founders and strongest members of the Union. All this comes at a time when many in Europe, including France, are questioning the assumption that Europe will become inevitably more integrated. Not helped by the fact that Mr Juppe is backing Jacques Chirac, the rival of his Prime Minister, Edouard Balladur, in the presidential race, French politics will inevitably be more concerned with domestic issues than matters of European concern in coming months.

The new president and his government will barely have time to look in their in-trays before France must give a report on its presidency at the EU summit in Cannes at the end of June and hand over the baton to Spain which holds the presidency for the second half of the year.

In London recently, Mr Juppe spelt out his list of priorities for Europe. Economic growth and employment headed the list, followed by security, relations with countries bordering the Mediterranean, the protection and spread of European culture, preparations for the 1996 intergovernmental conference, and review of the European institutions. Although agreements about decision-making in a 15 member EU, the role of the Commission, monetary union and other fundamentals will not be taken until the 1996 meetin g, the broad decisions will have to be taken by the end of this year.

One of the pressing questions is whether the EU will expand to include some East European countries like Poland, Hungary, and the Czech and Slovak republics.

It is unlikely that substantial progress will be made until the second half of the year. In the meantime, France and Spain will point out that the arguments about security, and the need for prosperous and stable neighbours, applies as much to north Africa as it does to eastern Europe. France is more affected by civil war in Algeria than any other European state. It will be keen, therefore, to develop naval cooperation with Italy and Spain.

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