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Small Nations Criticize Plan for 2 Chiefs Over Europe

By THOMAS FULLER,
International Herald Tribune


January 16, 2003 - The New York Times

 

PARIS, Jan. 15 — Deep divisions emerged in the European Union today over a joint proposal by the French and Germans to install two presidents at the helm of the expanding bloc.

President Jacques Chirac of France and Chancellor Gerhard Schröder of Germany agreed at a meeting late Tuesday to a compromise that would overhaul the union's structure to prepare it for the admission of 10 new countries next year. But the idea of two presidents, which supporters say would help personify the faceless bureaucracy in Brussels, was swiftly criticized by leaders of small nations, who fear domination by Europe's big powers.

"The Netherlands rejects these proposals," said Apzo Nicolae, deputy foreign minister and secretary for European affairs. "This is not the right direction."

Mr. Nicolae, who said he was awaiting details of the plan, said the proposal Mr. Chirac and Mr. Schröder agreed to over dinner at the Élysée Palace would shut out the small nations by abolishing the current system of rotating responsibilities among the union's 15 members.

Others criticized the plan as too confusing, saying power distribution was complicated enough without competing presidents.

"There are potential problems," Jonathan Todd, a commission spokesman, said. "There might be problems in having two centers of power on the same footing."

The joint plan calls for two major changes to the Brussels power structure. The European Commission, the executive body charged with proposing laws and implementing them, would be led by a president elected by members of the European Parliament. Currently, the president is appointed by heads of government of the 15 member countries in an often murky process. The plan then calls for the creation of a president of the European Council. Currently, the council is governed by a system of six-month rotations by the 15 member governments.

Diplomats said today that it was unlikely that the plan would be adopted in its current form. But they said it would serve as a starting point for the crucial debate over how power will be shared in Brussels.

For nine months, delegates to Europe's constitutional convention have debated the outlines of new institutions. The most difficult discussions will take place in the coming weeks, when the responsibilities of the current institutions in Brussels are to be more clearly defined.

The Danish prime minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, said in a speech today in Copenhagen that the key hurdle would be finding a power balance between large and small countries. "If attempts are made to upset this balance," he said, "there is a risk that the E.U. will fall apart."

Small countries are concerned about being crowded out when East European countries are admitted in May next year, one European diplomat said. Analysts worry that the new institutions will not be ready in time. The convention is to produce a draft constitution in June that must then be approved by the 15 member countries.

Despite the criticism, the plan is a breakthrough because France and Germany had clashed over preliminary plans. Germany wanted to strengthen the commission, which it sees as the protector of a more integrated Europe. France wanted to bolster the power of the council, which it saw as a way to ensure that its national sovereignty is guaranteed. The compromise was to create two presidents.

"In truth there was a real problem where the vision of Germany and France were not exactly the same," Mr. Chirac said at a news conference in the Élysée Palace on Tuesday.

He said that he and Mr. Schröder had decided that Germany and France would "each take one step toward the other."

"Once again," Mr. Chirac said, "we have shown that the French-German motor — essential for the construction of Europe — is functioning well."

But the plan's detractors said the compromise would only serve to muddle the European public's already confused view of what goes on in Brussels.

"It appears to me that we're taking risks ill-advised in a Europe already so difficult to understand," said Francois Bayrou, president of France's conservative pro-European Union for French Democracy party. "If there were a double presidency, there would one day be a conflict of legitimacy."
 

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