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Eastern Europe: EU To Choose 'Five-Plus-One' Expansion Formula

  • Joel Blocker

Luxembourg, 11 December 1997 (RFE/RL) -- At their two-day meeting that begins tomorrow in Luxembourg, leaders of the European Union's 15 member states are expected to choose five Central and East European states, plus Cyprus, with which to begin their long-awaited expansion talks next year.

The five area states are the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Poland and Slovenia, the same five economically advanced nations recommended by the EU's Executive Commission six months ago. Talks with all six countries are scheduled to begin in less than four months in Britain, which takes over the EU's revolving six-month revolving on January 1.

The decision to opt for the so-called "five-plus-one" formula was confirmed earlier this week (Dec. 8) at a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels. A large majority of the ministers turned down a proposal backed by several member states to begin talks simultaneously with all 10 Eastern candidates. The other five area candidates are Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania and Romania --deemed by the Commission to be more economically backward-- and Slovakia, which has failed to qualify because of its poor democratic and human-rights record.

The rejected proposal had been put forward by Denmark and Sweden --which especially wanted Latvia and Lithuania as well as Estonia to be in the first wave of accession talks-- and supported by Greece and Spain. Known as the "regatta" model, it would have begun membership negotiations with all applicant nations simultaneously, allowing the more economically qualified to attain actual entry earlier than the others.

But the ministers did agree to invite all10 Eastern nations to a grand ceremonial opening of the negotiations on March 31 in London. They also decided to involve the five "slow-track" candidates in a continuing eligibility screening process and to more evenly divide EU aid funds between them and the "fast-track" nations than was originally recommended by the Commission. All these decisions are expected to be essentially ratified during the Luxembourg summit, although some details may be modified.

But EU leaders are not expected to achieve similar consensus on the thorny problem of how to finance their promised expansion. Nor are they likely to agree on how to reform funding of the EU's poorer regions --notably, member states Greece, Spain and Portugal-- in order to cope with the entry of even poorer Eastern countries within the next decade. There is also deep disagreement among them about how and when to reform the EU's expensive Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which grants huge subsidies to farmers in EU nations.

Together, regional funding and the CAP today eat up four-fifths of the EU's total budget. They must be fundamentally changed in order to make possible a smooth enlargement to almost twice the Union's size. But there is little likelihood of any progress toward that end being made at Luxembourg, just as there was no accord on EU basic institutional reforms at the last such summit in Amsterdam. For all these reasons, more and more objective analysts are asking whether or not the EU can really succeed in keep its oft-repeated promise of granting the Eastern nations membership within the next decade. Unless the Union agrees on the necessary reforms, any membership it awarded the Eastern nations would be not much more than an honorary one.

At the Luxembourg summit, as at Amsterdam, much time will be taken up by two difficult problems related to the EU's coming Economic and Monetary Union (EMU). One concerns the naming of the first president of independent European Central Bank that will come into existence with EMU's birth in just over a year (Jan. 1, 1999). The other has to do with the powers to be granted to a more politically oriented council that will also exercise a supervisory role over the evolution of the new single currency, the euro.

One other nettlesome problem is likely to take up much of the leaders time at the summit. That is the question of Turkey, a perennial aspirant to EU membership that has been turned down repeatedly for several reasons: First, Turkey's human-rights record continues to considered too poor to merit entry. Second, member-state Greece, Turkey's long-time adversary, opposes any concessions to Ankara until its government proves more amenable on questions related to Cyprus and other outstanding bilateral issues. And third and most important --though far less often cited explicitly-- there is deep-seated hostility in many EU nations to the idea of admitting a nation of 60 million Moslems to the largely Christian Union.

To placate Turkey, several EU members --Britain, France, Italy, Spain and Austria-- favor including Ankara in a proposed pan-European Standing Conference for periodic political and economic consultations that would begin in February. But Greece opposes this is well, and Germany is not enthusiastic about the idea, either. For its part, as Foreign Minister Mesmut Yilmaz made clear to high EU officials in Luxembourg yesterday, Turkey does not want what he called "third-class status" in the EU.

Most observers believe that the issue of Turkey, as well as those related to EMU, will take up more of the leaders' time and energy in Luxembourg than expansion questions --the summit's chief formal agenda item. That would e quite in keeping with recent EU summit practices.

Still, by mid-day Saturday (Dec. 13), the EU will have made its biggest substantive commitment to expansion to the East since the fall of the Berlin Wall more than eight years ago. That should make it easier for its leaders sincerely to welcome all the candidate states' heads of state and government to a formal lunch and a planned two-and-a-half hours of talks Saturday afternoon.