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Friday, 11 October, 2002, 17:00 GMT 18:00 UK
Profile: Guenter Verheugen
Guenter Verheugen, EU commissioner for enlargement
Verheugen has complained that his a lonely job
BBC Brussels correspondent Oana Lungescu profiles Guenter Verheugen, the German commissioner in charge of the EU's most ambitious project - its expansion to include 10 new, mostly former communist, countries.

In the hushed auditorium, the grey-haired, bespectacled man on the stage made a startling confession.

"I sometimes feel a little bit alone," Guenter Verheugen told hundreds of participants at the Brussels International Business Forum earlier this year.

His plea was meant not only for the European business elite.

As enlargement enters its dramatic endgame, only 1% of EU citizens say they are well informed about what it means.

And the commissioner in charge would like EU leaders to start spreading the message about its benefits just as tirelessly as he does.

Commissioner as judge

Mr Verheugen spends most of his time not in Brussels, but on the road, shuttling between the 13 applicant countries and the 15 EU member states.

Earlier this year, I joined him on a typically hectic two-day trip to Slovakia, which took him from an impoverished gypsy settlement to Bratislava University.

Wearing a black cap and robe to receive an honorary degree, the commissioner looked remarkably like a judge.

Expansion is not just about lofty ideas, often it's about trivial matters such as the price of cigarettes

Indeed, an important part of his job for the last four years has been to assess how close each applicant country comes to EU standards.

But he told me he felt more like an architect or a bridge-builder.

And, to a great extent, the success of enlargement hangs on how skilfully he manages to bridge the gap between the interests of present member states and the hopes of the future ones.

Lofty and trivial matters

Born in 1944, at the end of World War II, Mr Verheugen studied history and worked as a journalist.

As a former minister for Europe, he belongs to a generation of politicians for whom the reunification of the continent is a moral imperative.

Click here to see a map of EU applicants

The peoples of central and Eastern Europe, he says, were victims of Hitler and Stalin.

They should be welcomed into the family of European democracies.

But of course, expansion is not just about lofty ideas.

Often, it's about apparently trivial matters such as the price of cigarettes.

Mr Verheugen fought a hard battle to convince a fellow commissioner that candidate countries should be allowed to delay by several years introducing EU levels of duty on tobacco which would have raised the price of some popular brands of cigarettes by 50%.

He's very sensitive to social symbolism, a close aide told me. He's worried that people in eastern Europe are getting tired of waiting and will not accept EU membership at any price.

Rows brewing

The next few weeks will probably be the hardest in Mr Verheugen's political career.

map of cyprus
He will try to nudge Greek and Turkish Cypriot leaders towards a long-delayed settlement so that a united island can join the EU in 2004.

If all efforts fail and only the Greek half of Cyprus enters the bloc, he will need all his diplomatic skills to avoid a huge row with Turkey, which is also pressing to start formal membership talks.

He will watch anxiously as EU leaders go behind closed doors to sort out the price of expansion.

With almost half of the EU's 100bn euro budget spent on farm subsidies, Germany has given notice it will not pay a euro more to support farmers in the east, unless the whole system is reformed.

But France, who gets the lion's share of farm aid, is stubbornly refusing any cuts.

If an agreement is reached, the overall price for expansion will remain fairly modest - some 25 billion euros for 10 new members over the first three years.

Or, as the gourmets of Brussels have already calculated, expansion would cost each EU citizen around 66 euros, or the price of one good restaurant meal.

Crucial Irish vote

But all that could become academic if the people of Ireland reject the Nice Treaty - which prepares EU institutions for expansion - in a referendum for a second time.

The Big Bang expansion has been Mr Verheugen's most daring plan

It would be a very serious problem, Mr Verheugen told me, and it would certainly delay the whole process.

He compared it to shutting a door in the face of the applicant countries.

He's no stranger to controversy over referendums. A few years ago, he drew political disapproval in Berlin and Brussels by suggesting that people should be consulted before expansion proceeds.

Given the general public apathy in the EU over the project, the idea was nothing short of revolutionary.

Hounded by journalists, Mr Verheugen said he simply wanted to raise awareness of this historic challenge.

Then, he shrugged his shoulders and said memorably: "Shit happens."

Two little words

Those two little words could come back to haunt him at the end of the year.

The proof of the pudding, one British diplomat told me, is whether we can digest all 10 at once and still function successfully

But, if all goes to plan, the EU's first - and probably last - enlargement commissioner will become technically unemployed in 2004, when the first 10 applicant countries are set to join the EU.

This "big bang" expansion has been Mr Verheugen's most daring plan.

Britain and France, among others, would have liked a more gradual process.

The proof of the pudding, one British diplomat told me, is whether we can digest all 10 at once and still function successfully.

If not, he warned, Mr Verheugen will be judged by history to have sent the EU down a blind alley.

But if it all goes well, the German commissioner will go down in history as one of the architects of Europe's first peaceful reunification.

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09 Oct 02 | Europe
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