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EU AGENDA Diplomatic roudtable.

Martin Holland reviews a recent conference which looked at the European Union's priorities, prospects, and problems in the new millennium.

An unprecedented diplomatic roundtable was recently held to open the joint conference of the EU Studies Association of New Zealand and the Australasian Political Science Association. Held from the 27 to 30 September at the Arts Centre, Christchurch, the conference attracted some 200 participants and provided a unique opportunity for EU member state representatives to debate the future direction of European integration in a public forum.

The theme of the roundtable was `The EU in the next Millennium: priorities, problems and prospects'. The ambassadorial panel brought together seven EU representatives. Three were Wellington-based diplomats -- British High Commissioner Martin Williams, Ambassador Noldeke of Germany and Ambassador Provenzano of the Italian Embassy; and four were cross-accredited from Canberra -- Ambassador Koler from the Austrian Embassy (representing the current EU presidency), Ambassador Hamilo from the Finnish Embassy, Ambassador Fernandez-Castano from the Spanish Embassy, and Ambassador Aneurin Hughes, the European Commission Head of Delegation.

Collectively, the roundtable reflected the European Union's historical development. Germany and Italy were two of the European Union's founding members, the United Kingdom and Spain represented those states which joined in the 1970s and 1980s, while Austria and Finland represented those whose membership only began in 1995. The roundtable also contained the current Troika states (the past, present and future Council presidencies) -- the United Kingdom, Austria, and Germany respectively.

While each diplomatic representative suggested nuances that were particular to their own circumstances, the striking feature of the discussions was the strong consensus that emerged on the key issues. This article provides an interpretation and summary of the roundtable; the views expressed here are the sole responsibility of the author, however, and should not be attributed as representing the individual or collective views of the participants.

Common themes

The common themes that emerged were enlargement; monetary union; the Common Foreign and Security Policy; Agenda 2000; and Europe's successful achievements to date.

Enlargement: There was unanimity over the importance of enlarging the European Union to incorporate the six candidates countries -- five from Central and Eastern European countries (CEEC) plus Cyprus -- although whether this could be achieved by 2002 or as late as 2010 was less certain. The particular importance of the CEEC to bordering EU member states was noted. For Germany, trade with the CEEC is more important than that with North America. Within the CEEC, Poland's GNP is greater than that of the other five candidate countries combined, and yet collectively the CEEC have a GDP just one-third of the EU average. Their combined economic weight is equal only to that of The Netherlands. However, it is politics rather than economics that is the driving motivation behind eastward enlargement. The end of the Cold War meant that an open and inclusive Europe was again possible -- one of the original objectives of Jean Monnet, the European Union's founding father of the 1950s.

EMU: Five of the member states represented at the roundtable have qualified for monetary union under the Maastricht criteria. In total, eleven of the fifteen EU member states will -- as of 1 January 1999 -- cede to the European Central Bank authority to frame and implement a single monetary policy as well as conduct foreign exchange operations in the Euro. For some countries, such as Italy, monetary union is fundamentally a question of principle: for others, notably the United Kingdom, it is more a question of practicalities. There was agreement, however, on the enormity of the implications. In particular, Ambassador Hughes of the European Commission emphasised the revolutionary nature of the change and suggested a longer term European ambition -- to establish a bipolar currency world based on the Euro and the US dollar.

CFSP: The creation of the Euro was also linked to enhancing the European Union's collective external image currently expressed through the CFSP. If the Euro did become a second international reserve currency, the European Union's profile in third countries would be enhanced and the effect of monetary union on such states would need to be addressed. In general, the development of the CFSP was regarded as necessary in order to balance the European Union's economic and political roles as an international actor. The existing disparity was viewed as detrimental to further integration.

Agenda 2000: The urgent need for internal reform, particularly in the European Union's financial structure was another common theme. The Common Agricultural Policy still currently takes roughly half of the EU budget -- a situation that will be financially untenable after the next enlargement. Many of the policy priorities as well as institutional structures that govern the European Union were created over 40 years ago and have remained largely unreformed. A greater role for the European Parliament was clearly inevitable even if such change can only be achieved incrementally. The next stages of European integration need to be firmly based on democratic legitimacy and, as one ambassador warned, unless the European Union can deliver benefits to ordinary citizens popular enthusiasm for the Europe will wane.

Achievements: Lastly, it was argued with some force that there was a missing element in the roundtable theme, namely, achievements. The imperfections that mark the development of the European Union are often given a high profile by the media and academics; this criticism ought to be balanced with the significant and undeniable successes of the Union. One diplomat described this as `an astounding success story'. Through integration, Europe had developed a greater presence in the world, peace had been achieved making war between the member states now quite unthinkable, and the European Union's single market had produced internal economic growth as well as set a regional example that has subsequently been imitated globally.

National perspectives

Other issues that were raised by individual ambassadors covered a wide range of topics. Representing the presidency, the Austrian Ambassador noted that in addition to EMU, CFSP and enlargement, the presidency's agenda priorities included unemployment, the environment, human rights issues, police co-operation and successfully ratifying the Amsterdam Treaty.

The German Ambassador depicted the launch of the Euro as a watershed in European integration and called for further progress in judicial and home affairs. The British High Commissioner was the only participant to directly comment on the European Union's relations with the Third World within the Lome context and the changing agenda to include good governance and trade liberalisation as aspects of development policy.

The Finnish Ambassador noted that Finland would hold its first presidency in the second half of 1999 and the challenge was to realise a saut qualitif to move the EU beyond its existing policies and institutional constraints. For the Spanish Ambassador whatever direction was finally determined, Europe's future was certain to remain complex and diverse. The Italian Ambassador emphasised a federal vocation for the EU and recalled the six `challenges' identified by the Italian Parliament in June 1995: a federal Europe; reform of the institutions; enlargement; CFSP; EMU; and Europe's social dimension.

Representing the Commission, Ambassador Hughes suggested that EMU, enlargement and institutional reform were the most pressing issues for the next millennium. Intergovernmentalism as a form of integration, it was argued, had been modest in its achievements and integration by stealth had to be avoided. Perhaps the greatest failure of the European Union was that of communication, and the greatest challenge in the next millennium is to create a dialogue and present a positive message of European integration to the European Union's citizens.

The roundtable provided a rare insight into both the areas of consensus between member states and where national differences in interpretation continue to exist. The overriding impression was one of genuine consensus and a narrowing of bilateral agendas. As the European Union continues to act together, a culture of cooperation becomes inevitably ingrained. What was perhaps the most surprising aspect of the discussion was the level of enthusiasm and commitment expressed by both those countries that had been member states for more than 40 years and those where membership only started in 1995.

Martin Holland is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Canterbury. As organiser of the conference, he would like to acknowledge the generous financial support provided by the European Commission, the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany, and the Link Programme of the British Council and British High Commission.
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Author:Holland, Martin
Publication:New Zealand International Review
Date:Nov 1, 1998
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