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Friday, 7 December, 2001, 16:06 GMT
France squirms as enlargement looms
The Arc de Triomphe
France fears its vision of the EU is losing ground
By Hugh Schofield in Paris

Conflicting statements from within the French Government about how quickly Romania and Bulgaria should be allowed to join the EU have revived longstanding doubts about France's true commitment to EU enlargement.

French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine
Hubert Vedrine: Admit the laggards too
The first of these statements was made three weeks ago by Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine, who indicated that - from France's perspective - Romania and Bulgaria should join the EU along with the other hopefuls.

The European Commission has indicated that Romania and Bulgaria will not be ready for membership in 2004 when the 10 other candidate countries are hoping to join.

"Between allowing 10 countries in and allowing 12, there is not much difference... I believe we should reflect on the drawbacks of leaving these two countries outside," Mr Vedrine said.

A furore ensued because the interpretation widely put on his words was that, far from sincerely desiring early membership for as many new countries as possible, France is actually terrified of the prospect.

Outrage

And the best way of placing a stick in the spokes is - ironically - to insist on simultaneous entry for all 12 candidate countries, including laggards like Bulgaria and Romania. That way the whole process of expansion is most likely to be held up.


We want to be the advocates of Bulgaria and Romania in the EU

French Europe Minister Pierre Moscovici
Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban was outraged: "One thing we will not accept is having to wait to join because another country is slower than us."

Since then, the signals from France have been mixed.

President Jacques Chirac said France was not insisting that Romania and Bulgaria join at the same time as the 10 other states, but only "as soon as possible."

But then in Sofia this week European Affairs Minister Pierre Moscovici said: "We want to be the advocates of Bulgaria and Romania in the EU. If a decision is taken... it must concern everyone."

But assuming its critics are correct, why should France want to hold up enlargement?

Uncertainty and confusion

The widely-accepted answer is that it fears a loss of influence in an expanded EU, whose fulcrum would have shifted several hundred miles to the east, and in which its historic partnership with Germany was no longer the determining factor.


It would be overstating the case to say that France is opposed to enlargement

Paris-based diplomat
A telling symbol: 10 years ago - at the time of negotiations on the Maastricht treaty - a small village in France's Massif Central proclaimed itself to much fanfare as the physical "centre" of the EU.

Today the small monument they put up there is not just delapidated, but irrelevant.

"It would be overstating the case to say that France is opposed to enlargement. That is clearly not the case. They can see the historical reality," said a Paris-based diplomat.

"What you can say though is that there is uncertainty and a degree of confusion. Enlargement is certainly not celebrated in the way it is in Britain for example."

Gloom

An article appeared in the authoritative Le Monde newspaper recently which clearly reflected the consternation - and despondency - that reigns in some French minds at the prospect of the new European Union.

Quoting European officials, it said there was now a widespread sense of gloom about the impact of enlargement on the process of integration, that was supposed to accompany it.


Everything is working towards a smooth transition into a Europe based around a free-trade zone

Le Monde
"We are entering an irreversible process of growing weakness over which we have lost all control," it quoted one official as saying.

The failure to reform EU institutions at Amsterdam in 1997, then at Nice in 2000 was not coincidental nor rectifiable. It was intrinsic to the type of loose body the EU is fast becoming, the paper said.

"Everything is working towards a smooth transition into a Europe based around a free-trade zone - a British victory over the old Franco-German vision, now fallen into disuse," the paper mourned.

The problem for France is that while the process of enlargement can perhaps be held up, it cannot be halted altogether. Which may explain the conflicting signals.

See also:

20 Nov 01 | Europe
France proposes fast EU expansion
23 Nov 01 | Europe
EU issues enlargement warning
13 Nov 01 | Europe
EU hopefuls on track
14 Jun 01 | Europe
The candidate countries
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