EU leaders prepare reforms ahead of eastward expansion

Saturday, December 15th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BRUSSELS, Belgium (AP) _ The 15 European Union leaders endorsed a plan Saturday aimed at making the EU more manageable and democratic after the doors swing open to a dozen new nations in the years ahead.

The leaders began the second and final day of the summit by announcing the formation of a convention of government representatives, legislators and experts to discuss how best to overhaul decision-making rules before new members join.

Central to the debate is whether the 15-nation EU should have strong federal powers or if it should be an economic club with a limited political agenda.

Whatever is decided, widening the ranks to almost 30 in the years ahead is bound to cause bureaucratic gridlock unless there is an overhaul of how the EU is run.

Convention members will debate reforms next year and make formal proposals by 2004. The EU leaders did not appoint a convention head, but Dutch Prime Minister Wim Kok, former French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing and former European Commission chief Jacques Delors were considered front-runners.

Officials were also set to declare the Union's planned rapid-reaction corps operational, giving themselves a military arm for peacekeeping and humanitarian operations.

The EU eventually wants to be able to field a force of up to 60,000 soldiers. NATO would make available planning, communications, intelligence and transport facilities.

The leaders also issued a long ``Future Of The European Union'' declaration that waxed poetic about European integration and the peace and prosperity it has brought.

The declaration said, however, that the EU is at a ``defining moment in its existence'' and that it must make major reforms.

The EU governments have consistently failed to do in the past decade, given reservations _ especially in Britain, France, Denmark and Sweden _ about giving the EU more decision-making powers at the expense of national governments.

The leaders' declaration suggested several ways that the EU could be made more effective:

_More majority voting to accelerate decision-making; unanimity is still the rule in many areas, and can result in delays.

_Endowing the EU with a constitution and a bill of rights. France and Germany back that, but not Britain, Denmark or Sweden.

_More power for the EU executive Commission and the European Parliament, which now have only a limited say in many key areas.

On the first day of the summit, the leaders urged Israel to resume contacts with Yasser Arafat and his Palestinian Authority, saying Friday that he was the legitimate representative of the Palestinians. They also said Arafat must dismantle ``the terrorist networks'' of the Islamic militant groups, Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

EU nations also promised Friday to send peacekeepers to Afghanistan as part of the British-led international force to provide security in Kabul as the new interim Afghan government takes power.