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EU: Estonia Aspires To Early Membership

  • Stuart Parrott

London, 27 January 1998 (RFE/RL) -- A senior U.N. official says that Estonia may be the first eastern country to be admitted to the EU, reflecting its success in reforming its economy to meet the strict membership requirements of the 15-nation union.

Carol Cosgrove-Sacks, director of the trade division of the U.N's Economic Commission for Europe said: "Estonia will very likely be one of the first East European countries to join the European Union."

"The bets in Brussels are on Estonia being Number 1, or Number 2, to successfully complete negotiations for EU membership. It will either be Slovenia or Estonia because both of these economies present the least problems, and are now the most integrated (with Western Europe), especially in the German trade network."

She spoke last week (Jan. 23) at a conference at Britain's Reading University about ways of expanding trade of the economies in transition.

Estonia and Slovenia are two of the so-called five "fast track" countries of Eastern and Central Europe which are said (by the European Commission) to be ready to open negotiations to enter the union. The other three are the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland.

Cosgrove-Sacks said all three Baltic states have made "enormous efforts" to escape from the economic ties that bound them to the Russian Federation or the old Soviet Union." She said: "They have brought about a complete transformation of their economies."

However, Latvia and Lithuania will likely have to take a back seat to Estonia. They are bracketed in the so-called five "slow track" countries not yet considered ready for full EU membership talks. (The other three are the Slovak Republic, Bulgaria and Romania).

In the run-up to the accession talks, due to begin in the next few months, analysts have warned that it will be much easier for the EU to absorb relatively tiny countries such as Estonia or Slovenia rather than big countries like Poland.

While positively assessing the progress of the Baltic states, Cosgrove-Sacks gave a mixed verdict on the transition of the other eastern economies. She said the U.N. Economic Commission for Europe believes the East and Central European and the CIS countries "are making progress, but not enough and not fast enough."

She said the Czech Republic, often considered the leader in the reform process, has achieved "barely one-third of its own goals in terms of economic transition to a private mixed economy."

One of the major problems across the region are technical barriers to trade which are standing in the way of liberalization.

She said: "The break-up of the old Soviet bloc has brought a tremendous increase in barriers to trade. New states, each with their own customs services, and their own need to generate revenue from border tolls, have thrown up these new obstacles."

She said among other factors slowing the economic transition are inadequate regulatory frameworks; failure to implement market-oriented legislation and a lack of enforcement agencies; and over-manning in key industries such as steel.

The Russian steel industry, in particular, suffers from gross-overmanning, and badly needs foreign investment to hasten the introduction of new technologies. But foreign investors are not prepared to take on the social costs of coping with overmanning.

Another problem is the poor quality of goods. She cited the Russian timber industry, saying it has the potential to generate the kind of revenues over the next 25 years of the natural gas sector. She said: "But no timber manager in the rest of the world trusts a consignment of Russian timber. If you ask for a particular specification, your chances are that you'll get maybe 30 percent of what you ask for, and the other 70 percent may not even be wood."

As far as the Central Asian republics are concerned, Cosgrove-Sacks said regional cooperation offers the best way of helping to develop their economies. The U.N. Secretary-General will soon announce a new initiative, known as SPECA, the Strategic Program for the Economies of Central Asia, that aims to help build transport and energy links, encourage the development of enterprises, "and help them help each other to overcome their shortcomings."