- The Washington Times - Friday, January 20, 2006

PARIS — French President Jacques Chirac has proposed the creation of an elite bloc within the European Union that would be able to forge closer links in the absence of a new EU constitution.

The plan would give more power to the 12 countries that have adopted the euro as their common currency — thus excluding Britain, France’s traditional foreign policy rival.

“It is natural for the euro-area member countries to deepen their political, economic, fiscal and social integrating,” Mr. Chirac told several diplomats at the outset of the year.

Despite protests from EU officials and the new members in Eastern Europe, Mr. Chirac insists that such a bloc should be allowed to “act as a complement to common policies.”

French officials see the scheme as a way to revive EU fortunes after a somber year in which French and Dutch voters rejected a draft constitution and the European Union underwent a divisive budget dispute.

Other EU officials argue that, in the present political climate, “the last thing the EU needs is a split into competing blocs.”

Critics of the Chirac initiative include Jose Manuel Barroso, head of the European Commission — the EU executive body — and Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schussel, whose country holds the group’s rotating presidency.

France continues to call for “more democracy and efficiency” within the cumbersome EU administration, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel wants to revive the attempt to rewrite the EU constitution. Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, meanwhile, has spoken in support of Europe’s federal structure.

The “euroland” countries, which Mr. Chirac sees as the hard core of the union, cooperate in several fields in addition to fiscal policies. However, diplomats say the impact of the euro bloc is likely to be diluted as non-euro countries are admitted to the group.

East European countries, including several candidates for EU membership, differ with the old members on several political and economic issues and have resented past initiatives by Mr. Chirac to form elite groups within the union.

Bulgaria and Romania are set to join the European Union as the 26th and 27th members next year. Talks are scheduled with three other Balkan countries — Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia-Montenegro and Albania — and preliminary negotiations have been held with Macedonia.

In the spring, a European summit will decide on Ukraine’s candidacy, which European public opinion favors while opposing that of Turkey, a candidate country since October.

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