Brussels, 25 November 1997 (RFE/RL) -- European Union foreign ministers have once again failed to resolve differences among them on the 15-nation West European bloc's preparations for its promised expansion to Central and Eastern Europe.
Meeting at EU headquarters in Brussels yesterday, the ministers put off all enlargement decisions until their next scheduled meeting in two weeks (Dec. 8). It's unlikely that get-together will produce the necessary consensus, which would leave it to the EU's biannual summit in Luxembourg later the same week (Dec. 12-13) to iron out crucial differences.
Chief among them are disagreements over the knotty questions of with which of the 10 Central and East European candidate states the EU should begin membership talks, and when those talks should start. Four months ago, in its 1,300-page "Agenda 2000" recommendations on the Union's future course, the EU's Executive Commission gave its advice.
The Commission favored starting talks with Cyprus, whose membership application antedates all the others, and only five of the 10 Eastern candidates --the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Poland and Slovenia. Judging these five to be most economically advanced, the Commission suggested postponing the start of negotiations with the other five --Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania and Slovakia-- until four of them moved forward economically and the fifth, Slovakia, showed greater respect for democratic values and human rights.
A majority of the EU's 15 members now agree with the Commission's advice. But Germany, the bloc's most populous and powerful member, did so only reluctantly, initially supporting talks only with the Czechs, Hungarians and Poles, the same three with which NATO has already begun accession talks. And other members, notably Austria, Denmark, Greece and Sweden, are pushing for the simultaneous opening of membership negotiations with all 11 candidates.
At yesterday's Brussels meeting, the four countries' ministers argued this was necessary to avoid creating divisions among the candidates and the appearance of EU favoritism. They said that, once the talks got underway, the candidates deemed better prepared by the Commission should be allowed to proceed more quickly than the others.
Denmark and Sweden do not want Latvia and Lithuania to be excluded from the initial round of talks, while France wants Romania to be included. Bulgaria and Slovakia lack individual member-state support, although some Western analysts have made eloquent pleas for including them, and others, as well.
As to when talks with some or all of the Eastern candidates should begin, the Commission --and powerful member-state leaders like Germany's Helmut Kohl and France's Jacques Chirac-- have repeatedly promised their start for early next year. The rhetorical formula has always been "six months after the end of the EU's Inter-Governmental Conference (IGC)" on the basic reforms necessary for enlargement. The IGC formally ended at the EU's Amsterdam summit in mid-July, but it flagrantly failed to agree on the needed reforms.
Since then, three countries --Belgium, France and Italy-- have declared in a joint statement that they will not accept expansion before the basic institutional reforms are enacted. If the three nations stick to their guns, that could mean a substantial delay in the enlargement process.
Now at least one other country, Britain, has indicated it favors delaying the start of talks --in London's view, only with the six advanced candidates cited by the Commission-- until September of next year. That would mean a full eight-month delay on the EU's oft-stated pledges. The suggested date would also defer beginning negotiations beyond Britain's six-month EU presidency, due to start in January, and leave it up to Austria, which takes over in July, to preside over the opening of the talks.
Yesterday, while reiterating his country was "fully in favor of EU expansion," Austrian Finance Minister Rudolf Erlinger said what he called "a precondition to enlargement is that it take place without a heavy burden for (present EU) net contributors." He meant that enlargement must be preceded by reforms in the EU's pay-in procedures as well as in its expensive agricultural and regional funding programs. Austria, one of the bloc's newest members (1993), is also its third largest net contributor --after Germany and the Netherlands-- paying in 1,000 million dollars annually, 0.4 percent of its gross national product.
As if all this divisiveness were not enough, yesterday's Brussels ministerial meeting also revealed continuing differences over the status of Turkey.
Ankara is a perennial EU aspirant, but its 60-million Moslem population, notorious human-rights record, backward economy and long-time conflicts with Greece have kept it out of the EU for three decades, although it has been a member of NATO for an even longer time.
Most EU members, particularly Britain, want to invite Turkey to participate in a proposed Standing Conference of all EU candidates and aspirants due to be inaugurated in London in late February. The conference, suggested by France, is intended to appease aspirants and candidates not included in the first round of expansion talks. Germany, with two million non-German-citizen Turkish residents, is not enthusiastic about Turkey attending. Greece is strongly opposed, and could veto the idea if Ankara does not make concessions to Athens on Cyprus and other outstanding bilateral issues.
The EU ministers had invited their Turkish counterpart, Ismail Cem, to meet with them for informal talks over dinner last night in Brussels. Although he was in Brussels yesterday, Cem refused, apparently because Ankara considered the invite degrading. Undaunted, the EU will send a top-level delegation to Ankara Thursday to discuss enlargement and other issues. Unfortunately, the delegation will speak in the name of only 14 countries, with Greece remaining adamantly opposed, and is therefore hardly likely to produce concrete results.