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Europe: EU Ministers To Tackle Expansion This Weekend

  • Joel Blocker

Prague, 24 October 1997 (RFE/RL) - Foreign ministers of the European Union's 15 member states will meet over the weekend (Oct. 25-26) to discuss plans for the bloc's promised expansion to Central and Eastern Europe. This will be the first time the ministers have collectively addressed enlargement questions since the EU's Executive Commission issued its recommendations in its July "Agenda 2000" document, which triggered more controversy than consensus within the Union.

The controversy is likely to continue, and possibly become sharper, at tomorrow and Sunday's gathering in the spa town of Mondorf-les-Bains in Luxembourg, which currently holds the EU's revolving presidency. In the three months since the Commission published its expansion blueprint, disagreements have grown among the 15 on three critical issues: First, which Eastern candidate nations should be invited first to begin membership talks early next year. Second, how to finance enlargement. And last, and perhaps most divisive, when and how to affect the basic reforms in the EU's institutions and policies that all agree are needed for a smooth expansion.

Agenda 2000 judged that, along with Cyprus, only five of the 10 Eastern candidates were now ready to open accession talks --the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Poland and Slovenia. Four of the other five --Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania and Romania-- were deemed economically still too backward to join the first wave of negotiations. Slovakia was excluded because of its perceived flawed democratic institutions and poor human-rights record.

At least 10 of the 15 EU members are currently inclined to accept the Commission's opinion on the matter, which will finally be decided at an EU summit in mid-December. But Denmark, Sweden, Greece, Spain and, to a lesser extent, Italy want talks with all Eastern candidate states, save Slovakia, to begin at the same time. The two Scandinavian countries have proposed what has been dubbed a "regatta" system. In their view, the nine applicant nations --like all boats at the beginning of a regatta race-- should start accession negotiations at the same time, even though some will eventually sprint ahead to accelerated membership.

In an interview earlier this week with the Danish Foreign Minister Niels Helveg Petersen argued that selective invitations to applicant states would create dangerous divisions in post-Cold War Europe. He said limiting the initial phase of the enlargement process would mean restricting EU financial support to only five Eastern states. That, he said, would encourage foreign private investment to flow only into the chosen five applicants, "thereby," he said, "creating (new) dividing lines."

The EU Commission has sought to soften the impact of such differentiation by drawing up what it calls "pre-accession partnership" contracts for all candidates. The contracts would oblige applicants to meet commitments to democracy, economic stabilization, and nuclear safety, as well as to a vast array of EU regulations ranging from minimal social and environmental standards to single-market rules.

Divisions among the 15 have also been exacerbated by bitter arguments in recent months over how to finance expansion within the Commission's recommendation of a budget ceiling of 1.27 percent of EU gross domestic product during a seven-period starting in 1999. Southern countries, led by Spain, fear cuts in the huge subsidies they now receive from Brussels ($34 billion annually). They doubt that poorer, farm-intensive Eastern candidates like Poland can be accommodated under the Commission's proposal. And they are very angry with Germany and the Netherlands, the EU's two biggest net contributors, for demanding reductions in their pay-ins.

One way to lower member contributions would be to overhaul the EU's Common Agricultural Policy and regional aid programs, which eat up almost four-fifths of its current budget. Agenda 200 made fairly radical proposals to do so. But their only effect so far has been to threaten strong political constituencies within the EU that range from Mediterranean-state farmers to poorer West European regions All fear reductions in their handouts from Brussels.

Finally, the EU has made little progress on the institutional reforms necessary for a near-doubling of its membership within the next decade or so. At its Amsterdam summit four months ago, all the key issues were deferred for at last several years. They include a system for more majority voting, a reduction in the size of the Commission and, perhaps most important -- and most difficult to achieve-- a re-weighting of votes among smaller and larger member states.

Brussels officials now admit that EU divisiveness and inertia in all three areas could delay the expansion that has been publicly promised by politicians like German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and French President Jacques Chirac for the year 2000 --and by more realistic Commission bureaucrats for five years later. The officials do not even deny that enlargement's so-far intractable problems could lead to a paralyzing crisis in the Union. They are hoping, but not counting on, this weekend's ministerial meeting proving the occasion for somehow beginning to break the impasse.