- The Washington Times - Monday, December 4, 2000

French President Jacques Chirac faces a delicate salvage operation this week as he tries to cajole his 14 European Union partners to embrace fundamental changes that would eat into the sovereignty of members in the world's richest club.

The three-day summit of EU leaders opening Thursday in the French Riviera resort of Nice was intended to be the triumphant capstone of Mr. Chirac's six-month stint as EU president, clearing the way for the admission of up to 13 eager Central and East European applicants over the next decade.

But diplomats, analysts and some of the union's own key players now say the French will be fortunate to avoid complete failure in Nice.

"We all hope we can get some serious basic decisions taken and a deeper package of reforms than there seems to be on the table now," said Austrian Finance Minister Karl-Heinz Grasser, who was in Washington late last week meeting with U.S. officials.

"But I think there was more hope for that at the beginning of the year than there is now," he said.

Romano Prodi, the Italian who heads the European Commission, the EU's executive arm, was even more blunt, telling reporters last week in Brussels that the chance of failure is 50 percent or even higher.

Mr. Chirac last week engaged in a whirlwind round of diplomacy, personally visiting all 14 fellow EU leaders in an effort to nail down the outlines of a deal.

He dined with Spanish Prime Minister Jose-Maria Aznar on Wednesday, shared a beer with British Prime Minister Tony Blair in a northern England pub Thursday, huddled with Italian Prime Minister Giuliano Amato on Friday, and Saturday was in the Hanover hometown of German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.

But French diplomats say they still have not finessed the EU's central dilemma. Facing a union whose membership nearly will double in the coming years, EU officials like Mr. Prodi insist they must have more power to make decisions on economic and social policy or the organizational gears will grind to a halt.

"If you have 30 countries, each with a right to veto, the whole thing grinds to a halt," Michel Barnier, the EU commissioner who is overseeing institutional reform efforts, contended last week.

But EU governments are divided deeply on which powers they are willing to surrender to Brussels, and have quarreled openly over how to parcel out representation between large members like France and Germany and smaller ones such as Denmark and Portugal.

The reformers' preferred solution a "qualified majority" system on some issues in which a single recalcitrant member can't block a change has proven a tough sell.

Austria, for example, demands a veto over any major decisions on immigration policy, citing a number of lower-wage former communist economies on its doorstep.

Mr. Blair, under heavy domestic pressure from Britain's "Euroskeptics," insists on a veto on EU tax and pension policy.

Britain's EU critics challenge the entire thrust of Mr. Chirac's agenda for Nice, saying areas in vital need of reform such as wasteful EU farm subsidies are being ignored in the push for more centralized power.

"It seems that uniform integration will remain the order of the day at Nice," according to Richard Spring, the Conservative Party's lead spokesman on European issues in the House of Commons.

Even Mr. Chirac's France is not blameless, rejecting the idea of qualified majority voting for financial services or cultural matters. The latter stance reflects longstanding French fears that the country's "patrimony" movies in particular would be threatened by unfettered free trade in intellectual products.

"There is a widespread view in the European Commission that the French have handled the presidency poorly because they have put French interests before the common good," said Charles Grant, head of the London think tank the Center for Economic Reform, in a commentary last week.

French diplomats also have been criticized for what are seen as heavy-handed attempts to ram through reforms at the expense of smaller states. The issue has become even more pressing with the backlash over the nine-month effort led in part by Mr. Chirac to blackball Austria over the inclusion of a far-right party in the governing coalition.

France and Germany, the EU's leading powers, are squabbling in the days before Nice over Germany's insistence that it have a larger voting representation in EU administrative bodies because its population of 82.6 million is nearly 30 percent larger than that of France.

"We need a principle that is valid for everyone. We must change the weighting between big and small countries," German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer told the German newspaper Handelsblatt Friday.

But Mr. Chirac is under tremendous political pressure at home to keep the German and French voting powers equal.

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