Candidate countries attend Barcelona summit amid heated regional row

Milos Zeman, photo CTK

EU candidate countries got a glimpse on Friday of what life will be like inside the European Union, when they attended a summit in Barcelona on how to revive Europe's sluggish economy. It was the first time leaders of the 13 EU candidates sat down with leaders of the 15 EU members to discuss a subject other than enlargement. But as Rob Cameron reports now, questions still remain about how an enlarged European Union will look in the future.

Milos Zeman,  photo CTK
The Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman and his twelve counterparts from the EU candidate countries were clearly happy to be in Barcelona, their first EU summit on a subject other than enlargement. Poland's Prime Minister described the meeting as "the beginning of a very good tradition," and the EU's Enlargement Commissioner said the "experiment" had been very useful.

But plans to reform EU institutions - making it possible for 28 countries to actually agree on something and prevent the EU grinding to a halt - remain just that: plans. This was acknowledged by the President of the European Commission, Romano Prodi, who said after the summit that "with so many people, if we don't change the rules we are not going to get anywhere." That's something most people agree on, especially when it comes to the national vetoes currently wielded by the EU 15. Vaclav Zak is the editor-in-chief of the political bi-weekly Listy.

"I hope the EU will be enlarged only when veto voting has been abolished. Then they'll be voting after a discussion and the majority will win. So I don't think that there will be necessarily be endless discussion and quarrels."

But while it was all smiles in Barcelona, relations between the candidate countries of Central Europe are anything but warm at the moment. There's a bitter political dispute raging over Czechoslovakia's post-war Benes decrees, laws which led to a substantial revision of the region's ethnic makeup. Vaclav Zak says the quarrel over the decrees is highly dangerous. He believes a similar historical dispute - also between emerging democracies - should serve as a warning to the region's politicians.

"What's happening here in Central Europe is really dangerous. Because if we remember the situation after the end of the First World War, there were democracies emerging in almost all European countries, but after four, five, ten years, these democracies failed. And they failed because of so-called 'mobilisation politics'. That means the politicians tried to pick up on some prejudices, and they tried to win support among the population by stressing these prejudices."

Some analysts predict the dispute over the Benes decrees will lead to a realignment of allegiances within the expanded European Union. But in the short-term at least, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Germany all face elections this year, and warnings against such "mobilisation politics" - using nationalist rhetoric to win votes - will probably go unheeded.