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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

EU's Expansion Summit Places Pressure on Major

DUBLIN -- A special summit of European Union leaders in Dublin on Saturday will see more shadow-boxing than hard bargaining over how to prepare the bloc to take in up to a dozen would-be members from Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean.


Though the time for painful compromises is still many months away, the gathering will allow those with bold visions for the future to remind more cautious colleagues -- particularly Britain's John Major -- of the scale of the challenges ahead.


"A historic opportunity now exists for a political and economic restructuring of Europe," Irish Prime Minister John Bruton, the summit host and chairman, said in his letter of invitation urging fellow leaders to provide "political impetus."


The point was reinforced in a speech on Thursday by Prime Minister Wim Kok of the Netherlands, one of the six founder members of a club which has now grown to 15.


"The Europe we built was not intended to house so many. Extending the accommodation currently available is [the] task of the IGC," he told the College of Europe in Bruges.


The inter-governmental conference, or IGC, to negotiate reforms to the EU's treaties and working methods has been making steady but unspectacular progress since it began in March as governments rehearse well-known arguments.


Though no one expects Saturday's meeting to produce any instant results, Irish officials hope the top-level political attention will make it easier to meet their target of presenting a draft treaty by the next regular summit in Dublin in December.


A flurry of bilateral meetings ahead of the summit, which sealed old friendships or repaired strained ties, suggested that no one is heading for Dublin looking for confrontation.


Even British Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind, who earlier questioned the value of the summit, described the meeting as a "valuable opportunity" to speak freely and explore ideas.


The meeting is nonetheless awkward for Major's Conservative government, which must hold elections by next May but trails the opposition Labour party by a record margin.


Any hint by Major that he is wavering in his opposition to deeper integration, in particular by removing the national veto, will be seized on by Conservative "Eurosceptics" to cause trouble at the party's conference next week.


But Major's uncompromising stance has antagonized other EU members who believe that more majority voting is the only way to keep the Union afloat when countries ranging from Latvia to Malta finally join the bloc.


All agree that the IGC cannot end until after the British general elections, but the timing of the poll has led some to suggest that a new government may need until the second half of next year to wrap up negotiations.


And German Chancellor Helmut Kohl said this week that it would not be "catastrophic" if some community issues were left unsettled until a later date.