Street Clashes, Internal Divisions Roil the EU Gathering in Sweden


European Union leaders Friday promised Eastern European states seeking to join the prosperous alliance that their admission remains on track despite an Irish vote against the expansion formula and squabbling among members over a timetable.

But while the 15 EU leaders may have succeeded in appeasing applicant states, they failed miserably in efforts to avert violence during back-to-back summits with President Bush and among themselves, as the streets of this serene seaside city became a battle zone between police and anti-globalization protesters.

Enraged by police cordons that kept demonstrators away from Bush during his visit a day earlier, a few hundred radicals from among the 12,000 demonstrators who had converged on the city smashed windows Friday, hurled cobblestones and lighted a bonfire of wicker chairs grabbed from sidewalk cafes. There were reports that three protesters had been shot.

The rioting sent a pall of smoke over the quaint, park-dappled inner city and prompted summit organizers to move the gala dinners for heads of state and government and their delegations from villas in the surrounding neighborhoods to the barricaded trade fairgrounds where the leaders were meeting.

Summit host Goran Persson, the Swedish prime minister, at times struggled to keep his focus on the business of EU enlargement and the internal reforms that will be needed to absorb as many as 13 new members over the next decade. That expansion, if completed, will more than double the alliance's current population of 376 million.

The angry clashes outside the meetings were a visible provocation and embarrassment for Persson, who had sought to prevent such disruptions by sitting down with protest groups ahead of the summits to listen to their grievances.

"This is a tragedy, but we've seen it before," Persson said, in reference to violent outbreaks that marred the 1999 World Trade Organization gathering in Seattle and a number of big international meetings since. Breaking with a posture of tolerance that he hoped would prevent trouble, Persson accused the radicals of "trying to challenge democracy itself."

As the unrest unfolded outside the convention grounds, the EU leaders were engaged in confrontations of their own, although decidedly more diplomatic.

The concluding event of Sweden's six-month EU presidency had been expected to provide a date--namely 2004--for admission of up to five new alliance members, once they brought their laws and practices in line with the rest of the bloc in negotiations next year.

But France and Spain, fearing that they will lose their hefty subsidies once the poorer eastern states are sharing the resource pie, have balked at fixing entry dates for the states that are close to meeting assimilation conditions. Added to that resistance, Germany and Austria are pushing to "phase in" some membership rights for the new states. As countries bordering the candidates most likely to be in the first expansion wave--Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary--they fear that an inundation of cheap labor will take jobs away from their own citizens unless the right of free movement for workers is suspended for the first seven years.

Swedish Foreign Minister Anna Lindh said her country was lobbying for immediate and equal rights for all newcomers and had won backing from the Netherlands and Ireland. She appealed for the rest of the existing members to show solidarity but conceded that they are "not unanimous."

Talks on expansion and thorny financing issues were to continue today, but the EU leaders were already lowering expectations. Despite Persson's vow at the start of the Swedish presidency to provide a clear timetable for enlargement by the end of the present summit, the refrain now is for "a clear signal that enlargement is irreversible," said German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer.

Enlargement plans were dealt a blow by Irish voters June 7, when a meager 34% turnout for a badly promoted referendum rejected the treaty signed in December in Nice, France, that outlined alliance reforms needed before new members can be admitted.

Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern insisted that Ireland remains firmly in favor of an expanded and empowered Europe but would need "an extended period for reflection" before calling another vote. Ireland is the only EU state constitutionally obliged to ask voters to ratify treaties.

"The result of our referendum graphically underscores what I believe all of us around this table already know: that there is, unfortunately, a widespread sense of disconnection between the institutions of the union and its citizens," Ahern said.

But Ahern insisted that "the 'no' vote should not be interpreted as a vote against enlargement," because polls routinely show majority support for the EU.

The Goteborg talks also aired pressure for Britain to join the common European currency, now that Prime Minister Tony Blair has won reelection on a pro-Europe platform. The euro will go into circulation in January. EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana also appealed to member states to consider a peacekeeping role in embattled Macedonia to help the North Atlantic Treaty Organization disarm separatist rebels there.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World