Prague, 29 October 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Over the past several days, Germany's newly installed left government has clearly signaled a key change in the country's policy toward the European Union's promised expansion to Central and Eastern Europe. If the change proves to be durable, it could slow down the entry into the EU of the 10 eastern candidate states.
In past years, former Chancellor Helmut Kohl was the eastern nations' strongest advocate within the EU. He often pressed for their earliest possible entry and even publicly suggested more than once that enlargement could begin as quickly as 2000. But now several important officials in Social Democrat Gerhard Schroeder's new government are calling for what they call more "realism" about expansion, an obvious code word for deferral of EU enlargement.
Schroeder himself was the first to voice the policy change. At an EU summit meeting in Austria last weekend (Oct. 24) just days before his swearing in, he told the assembled leaders that enlarging the 15-nation group would be a tougher and longer process than was widely realized. Schroeder said that before it could expand to the East the EU had to carry out essential internal reforms, especially in limiting the size of its Executive Commission and introducing more majority voting that would hold down the use of a veto by individual member states.
Schroeder's remarks quickly triggered worried reactions in Central Europe, especially in Warsaw, which the chancellor is due to visit next week. In an interview with a German newspaper ("Frankfurter Rundschau") yesterday, Polish Foreign Minister Bronislaw Geremek voiced his concern with what he called "the unsettling news" from Austria. Geremek added pointedly that a community of nations could not be formed on the basis of nationalist policies.
But yesterday Schroeder's foreign minister, Green party leader Joschka Fischer, went even further than the chancellor in cautioning against rapid EU expansion. Speaking to diplomats at the Foreign Ministry in Bonn, Fischer warned against what he called "illusory timetables" for the pace of EU expansion that "cannot be met and will only lead to disappointment.... Realism is necessary," Fischer said, because it would serve no purpose to ignore the impact enlargement will have on the economic and other interests of all of the EU's current members.
Later in the day, Fischer's deputy Guenter Verheugen flatly stated there was what he called a "new realism" in Bonn's policy on EU expansion. In an interview with German Radio (Deutschlandfunk), Verheugen said Poland could attain full EU membership only over what he termed "a long transition period." He cited the vast difference in incomes between German and Polish workers as evidence that it would take many years before there could be full freedom of movement for laborers between both countries.
Asked how long the transition period might last, Verheugen said that depended on Poland's economic development. In Warsaw, however, Polish officials say the country will be ready by 2002. In a telephone conversation with RFE/RL today, Polish Foreign Ministry spokesman Pawel Dobrowolski commented:
"(The) Polish government point of view has always been that we are attempting to prepare Poland in every conceivable way (for entry) as soon as (possible), which is realistically, from our point of view, 2002 or 2003. But what Polish politicians (including Foreign Minister) Geremek emphasize is that it is not so much a question of a date (as it is) the benefits to be derived by both sides, the Union and ourselves. So whether it is 2002 or 2003 is to some degree an academic question."
Nevertheless, Dobrowolski said that, in talks with Fischer in Warsaw this afternoon, Geremek intended to talk not only of the process of enlargement but also of possible dates for expansion.
Dobrowolski also confirmed that Geremek had in recent days twice publicly spoken of what he called "a residue of doubt" about Germany's Social Democrats -- the second time last night on Polish radio. That doubt, the minister said, went back to the 1981 suppression of the Polish Solidarity movement that eventually put him in prison but, he recalled, had elicited no immediate strong opposition from the Social Democrats.
Assuming Schroeder and Fischer stand by their revision of German policy on expansion -- and there's little reason to think they won't -- their country will join three other members which have formally declared they will not support enlargement until the EU effects essential internal reforms. The others are France, Italy and Belgium. The reforms they are seeking include revamping the Union's expensive Common Agricultural Policy and regional funding, which eat up two-thirds of the EU's $100 billion annual budget, as well the overhaul of its Commission and voting procedures that Schroeder mentioned in Austria.
Can all that take place by March, a deadline the EU has given itself for structural reforms? Not many analysts believe so, and some are now inclined to consider Germany's taking over the EU's revolving presidency on January 1 as a hindrance, rather than a help, in expediting the process of expansion.
In 10 days (Nov. 9-10), following complaints from several eastern candidates, the EU will begin substantive negotiations in some areas with the five Central and East European applicants that are considered on a fast entry track. The five are Estonia, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland. That will perhaps speed up what has so far been a prolonged screening of their compliance with EU regulations.
But no renaming of the negotiation process is going to change the minds of EU members that clearly want expansion put off for some years. Germany, the EU member with the biggest economy and clout, has now apparently joined their ranks. That is not good news for those in Central and Eastern Europe who hope for a speedier integration with Western Europe.