Prague,14 December 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The year 1998 was a significant one for the 10 Central and East European countries seeking to join the European Union, with the enlargement process at last taking on a formal structure. The challenge of the year ahead will be for candidates, and especially the EU itself, to sustain this process and give it more substance.
The opening, early in 1998, of the process of "screening" was a milestone. Screening is a formal review process in which EU officials lead the applicant country step by step through the whole body of EU rules and legislation, with the aim of identifying where the candidates must change their laws to conform to EU norms.
This process, which continues into the new year, has been more detailed for the five front-running applicants, namely Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Estonia and Slovenia, than for the second group -- Slovakia, Lithuania, Latvia, Romania and Bulgaria.
The five front-runners, plus Cyprus, passed another milestone in the autumn when they opened substantive accession negotiations on parts of the EU legislation in which screening had been completed. This means that more than a quarter of the necessary chapters have already been negotiated or are under negotiation without significant problems. However, they cover the easiest topics. The negotiations on difficult subjects, such as agricultural production and free movement of labor, lie ahead.
Another concrete step, taken towards the end of 1998, was the issuing by the EU Executive Commission of the first in what will be annual progress reports on each applicant. The reports were quite critical of some of the candidates, but they set visible benchmarks against which progress in subsequent years can be measured.
Increasingly the expansion process has come in for hefty criticism for its slow pace, notably from the most dynamic of the front runners, Poland and Hungary. These two countries are virtually hammering on the gates of the EU, demanding that the reluctant members of the club set a definite timetable for entry of the newcomers.
But overall, Brussels-based eastern diplomats involved in the expansion process are expressing relief that things have got as far as they have. The reaction of Estonian Ambassador to the EU, Clive Kull, is typical:
"Of course, this is a very tough exercise for both the EU member states and the applicant countries. It is no secret that we started the negotiations with the so-called easy areas, the less complicated areas. Therefore I would not expect it would be better next year, but I do hope it will be as good, and if we do face complications, or more substantial problems, that we will manage them in the same way as we managed the start of the process."
The real hurdles to expansion lie not so much with the applicants, as within the EU itself. The just-concluded Vienna EU summit (Dec. 11/12) laid down the guidelines for the expected major struggles over EU internal reform. The main battlefield will be the special EU summit set for next March under the German Presidency.
Conflict mainly centres on who will sacrifice what in the EU's annual $100 billion budget in order to finance the eastern arrivals. Germany says it cannot continue to pay for practically everything in the EU; Spain, Portugal and Greece say they will not give up special regional funding; France is resisting a replacement for the hugely-expensive common agricultural policy.
The March summit discussions on "Agenda 2000" as the reform package is called, will be crucial for the outlook on eastwards expansion. There are pessimists, who say the EU will not easily be able to overcome its long-standing difficulties. However, a senior Hungarian Foreign Ministry official involved with the accession process, Zsold Becsey, says he is optimistic.
"We are optimistic because we have a political promise from the side of the EU, given at the June 1997 summit in Cardiff, that by the end of the March 1999 the discussion on the Agenda 2000 reform package, which can be a very progressive scenario, will be finished. If it is completed even by the end of the next year, the new financial perspective for the years 2000 to 2006, can be also arranged. From this point of view the EU will also be able to absorb new member states."
Becsey says he expects next year to be one of substantial progress, in which the real issues pertaining to membership will be hammered out. Recent pronouncements, particularly by officials of the new centre-left German government, that the expansion process must not be "rushed", have led to a widespread perception that enthusiasm in the west is waning. Given each country's preoccupation with its own troubles, this is probably true. Easterners may be worried, or in the case of Poland and Hungary, downright irritated, but no-one seems about to abandon hope. As Brussels-based diplomat, Bulgarian counselor Vesselin Valkanov, puts it:
"It is for the existing member countries to clarify their positions and minds on how they want to see the process evolve in future. Of course we are rather apprehensive when certain important countries say that things have to be taken at a slower pace and more cautiously. We are not quite sure what is meant at times by those who say such things. But we hope that things will be on track next year."
If 1998 was an interesting one on the accession countries, the coming year should be even more so.
(First of three articles on the European Union.)