Prague, 26 February 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Five of the eastern countries which are moving toward membership in the European Union are about to intensify that integration process.
The five are Romania, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Latvia and Slovakia, which make up the so-called "slow-track" applicants for EU membership. Since spring last year they have been involved in a process called screening, meaning the comparison of their own national legislation with the body of rules of the EU.
Until now, the screening process has been multilateral, meaning that experts and diplomats of all five have sat down jointly with EU officials and discussed how their existing laws need to be modified to meet EU norms.
But starting March 1, the screening process will be at bilateral meetings, during which each country will separately explain to EU officials the progress they are making in changing their laws, and in moving toward actual implementation of those changes in daily life. The EU has continually emphasized that it wants not just good intentions, but concrete results.
Nico Wegter, a spokesman for the European Executive Commission, told RFE/RL that the screening process is an "inventory of the state of play" in the candidate countries. He said the screening process will likely continue until the summer or autumn of this year, and the results will be incorporated into the country-by-country progress reports which the commission will issue in November.
Wegter also pointed out that the screenings, which are a process of comparison, are not be confused with negotiations. So far, no accession negotiations have been scheduled to take place with the five slow-track candidates. Fast-track eastern candidates Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovenia and Estonia have already opened substantive negotiations with the EU, but Brussels has not deemed any of the second group ready for that step. However, it has held out hope to Latvia in particular that it might be able to advance to the front-running group by the end of this year.
Brussels-based diplomats of the slow-track countries have welcomed the start of the bilateral phase of screening, which will cover all 31 chapters of the "aquis communautaire", as the EU's body of legislation is called.
Bulgarian diplomatic mission counselor Petar Stefanov told RFE/RL that the Bulgarian administration has prepared very thoroughly for the coming bilateral sessions. He said there are a number of areas in which legislation and enforcement are in compliance already with the EU norms. But Stefanov says there remains some way to go on other chapters:
"There are some other chapters where we have a lot still to fulfill and implement, certainly, but that is what the whole process is designed for, to identify difficulties, to identify the level of harmonization of our legislation with the EU legislation, and also to identify possible ways of bridging discrepancies in that harmonization."
A diplomat at the Lithuanian mission in Brussels, Dainoras Ziukas, said his country views the occasion as an important one on the path toward substantive negotiations and eventual EU membership.
"We have been waiting for this moment since we started the integration process, because the bilateral screening process represents a step closer to formal negotiations."
Both of these candidates, Bulgaria and Lithuania, have a specific problem in their relations with the EU, namely the issue of nuclear safety. The Soviet-era nuclear power stations at Ignalina in Lithuania and Kozloduy in Bulgaria are considered to be among Europe's most dangerous installations. Safety improvements have been made with western aid, but the EU is growing increasingly insistent that definite steps should be taken to close the plants, as originally promised. The EU has made clear that early membership for these two countries is linked to finding a solution to the nuclear issue.
Several chapters of the aquis communautaire relate to environmental and energy issues, so the coming screening process will serve to illustrate the continuing differences between the EU and the two candidates in this respect.
Despite the strains, however, Lithuania and Bulgaria, along with Slovakia, have won recent praise from the European Executive Commission's deputy director general for external relations, Francois Lamoureux. In comments last month, he said those three countries had worked "extra hard" to make progress in legislative harmonization.
He also said that if one had to classify the applicant countries today in terms of taking on board the aquis communautaire, it would not necessarily be the fast-track countries which would be at the top of the list.