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Europeans hash out best poses, positions

When the 15 leaders of the European Union meet here today, they will, as always, have a lot to talk about in the silent knowledge that there may be little they can do about most of it.

With Jacques Chirac in perpetual motion as the chairman and host, the main issue in public will be Europe's 11 percent unemployment, an issue he put at the center of his successful campaign for the French presidency.

But the business cycle is beyond the control of governments. And while economists give several answers as to what's wrong, their remedies have either not worked very well or are far too drastic to swallow.

One would abandon the drive for a single European currency, which the leaders are expected to slow from 1997 until 1999. But meeting the necessary limits on debt, deficits and inflation even by then could be a brake on the creation of jobs.

And no one will be ready to cut back on the world's most generous social programs even though business claims they make it impossible both to hire and to be competitive.

Bosnia, Europe's worst failure of the decade, is also on the agenda. Carl Bildt, the former Swedish prime minister who has replaced former British Foreign Secretary David Owen as chief negotiator, will report on his first talks.

At summits the past four years, officials have huffed, puffed, passed resolutions, mandated aid and called for more negotiations, all with great hypocrisy and to little avail in the absence of treating the aggressors as aggressors and sending enough troops to impose a solution.

Instead, Europe's leaders have placed the Serbs on the same level as their victims and backed away from every confrontation.

France and Britain have just formed a rapid reaction force to stop the Serb militias from pushing the troops of the U.N. Protection Force around, taking them hostage and stealing their arms and aid.

But U.N. administrator Yasushi Akashi quickly revealed it a charade when he fell all over himself in his haste to reassure Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, the chief bandit, that nothing has really changed.

At least two of the EU leaders, British Prime Minister John Major and Spanish Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez, came here as walking wounded.

When Major gets back to London later this week, he will know whether he will face a stalking-horse as an opponent in the surprise elections for the leadership of the Conservative Party on July 4.

If Major wins the required majority then, he will continue as party leader and prime minister. If he falls short, as Margaret Thatcher did in 1990, he may have to face a more formidable opponent in a second round of voting. His fate would then be in doubt.

Just as Spain takes over the rotating EU presidency from France, Gonzalez might be in bigger trouble. His government has been rocked by scandal after scandal, the latest when the security services were caught bugging prominent figures, at one point monitoring the calls of King Juan Carlos.

Heads are falling. Gonzalez and his Socialist Party are kept in office only by the 17 votes of the Catalan nationalists who, for the first time, seem to be having doubts about continuing (their support).

Even though Gonzalez may be able to hold out against calling immediate elections this year, Spain's six-month EU presidency could be overshadowed by political crisis just as France's has been by its presidential elections.

But, even if no major progress is made toward a single currency and common foreign and defense policies, this summit will still be worthwhile. Inch by inch, the EU is moving toward bringing in new members and rewriting its constitution.

For the second time, leaders of the first six applicants in Eastern Europe will be present at a EU summit as observers. These applicants are Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, Romania and Bulgaria. For the first time, the leaders of the three Baltic states, Cyprus and Malta will be here, too.

A Europol organization will be approved on the lines of Interpol. And the 15 EU leaders are expected to finally agree on divvying up foreign aid among Eastern Europe, the countries along the southern shore of the Mediterranean and Africa.

In the background looms the United States, which Europe sees as turning inward, unwilling or unable to lead and increasingly combative in trade. While nationalism may pull Europe apart, the fear of being abandoned by America may help bring it together.