Belgian Presidency sets agenda
At a meeting in Brussels on 21 June, Belgium outlined for the first time the priorities for its six-month EU Presidency mandate. What came as a surprise was not the issues themselves, but their abundance.
In the short run, Belgium will have to ensure that euro banknotes and coins go into circulation in January 2002, establish the European Food Authority and make EU security and defence policy operational by the end of the year.
The longer-term objectives are, naturally, fuzzier. The new Presidency will continue pursuing accession negotiations according to the enlargement road map agreed at the Helsinki Summit in 1999. It should also achieve progress on developing a common EU policy on immigration and asylum, together with implementing the programme on sustainable development adopted at the latest Gothenburg Council meeting. Lastly, the Belgian Presidency is to open the so-called dialogue on the future of Europe, which will culminate in the next Intergovernmental Conference in 2004.
With respect to external relations, for the next half of the year the EU is pledged to focus on stabilising yet again the western Balkans and Macedonia in particular. Attention is also paid to the persistent conflict in the Middle East and to cooperation with Russia. Meanwhile, intensified discussions with the USA on the Union's common security and defence policy, its enlargement and environmental concerns are to play a pivotal, although understated, role in the future of the EU.
Belgium has already acknowledged the ambitiousness of its agenda, but seems to consider it a sign of dedication and good will more than anything else.
Enlargement without the Treaty of Nice?
In a four-day visit to Ireland, Commission President Romano Prodi confused his audience when he said that enlargement could proceed without ratification of the Treaty of Nice.
Prodi's aim during the visit was to "understand how Ireland feels about the European union and its future," Jonathan Faull, spokesman to the Commission president said.
At the same time, Mr Prodi said in an interview with the Irish Times: "Legally, ratification of the Nice Treaty is not necessary for enlargement." Thus, he voiced comment by some analysts that the institutional reform concerning new accessions is part of a political declaration, annexed to the treaty, and as such is not legally binding.
Nevertheless, the Commission President later stressed that the "Nice Treaty is a political condition for enlargement." In other words, political consensus over the treaty can reasonably outweigh legal procedure and place enlargement in yet another stalemate.
Overall, the situation so far proves most uncomfortable to the Irish government. With the EU giving clear signs that it will not reopen negotiations, Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern has a year to convince the Irish citizens to vote "Yes" at the next referendum.
Estonia starts managing EU farm aid
The European Commission has authorised the Estonian government to take over the management of the SAPARD aid programme, which provides for the preparation of candidates' agricultural sector for participation in the EU market.
Estonia, the second country after Bulgaria to start managing pre-accession farm subsidies, will receive EUR 12.1 million annually. The main objectives of the SAPARD programme here are to boost investment in the sector, improve the quality and marketing of agricultural products and diversify agricultural activities. The provision of supporting infrastructure is also a must.
Candidates discuss competition policy
EU Competition Commissioner Mario Monti and respective officials from the 13 accession states met in Slovenia for their seventh annual competition conference. The issues discussed there will be negotiated during the second half of this year, under the Belgian Presidency. Turkey was among the participants for the first time.
Officials discussed the preliminary results of the Commission's annual report on the competition aspects of enlargement. Particular attention was paid to the candidates' enforcement records with respect to anti-trust legislation and state aid. Aiming to preserve as much of the homogeneity of the EU market as possible upon enlargement, the EU demands that prospective members become accustomed to competition discipline before they actually join. The ability to compete with the EU market is also a cornerstone of the economic criteria for accession, as outlined at the Helsinki Summit in 1999.
There are three conditions in the area of competition policy that must be met by all candidates. Firstly, there must be an established legal framework for anti-trust and state aid. Secondly, legislation must be effectively implemented. Lastly, and maybe most importantly, prospective members should have a concrete anti-trust and state aid record.
Unsurprisingly, Commissioner Monti criticised candidates at the level of policy implementation. Progress in this area will be scrutinized later on this year, when negotiations on competition issues are due.
Ivana Gogova, 22 June 2001
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