Prague, 11 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The European Union countries are moving toward broad consensus on a major pre-accession aid package for the 10 EU candidate countries of Central and Eastern Europe.
The package is said to total some $24 billion to cover the seven-year period from 2000 to 2006.
An official within the German presidency of the EU tells RFE/RL that there is general agreement on the size and details of the package. The Brussels-based official -- who requested anonymity -- said that a few member states still have some reservations about parts of the deal. But he said that the presidency is optimistic it will be accepted largely as it is by the special Berlin summit of EU leaders on March 24 and 25.
He cautioned, however, that the aid package is part of the bigger EU internal reform program known as Agenda 2000. This means the aid package cannot yet be considered formally settled because the principle being applied to Agenda 2000 is that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.
At the moment, stormy negotiations are continuing between the 15 EU members on major aspects of Agenda 2000, particularly agricultural financing. However, the German presidency is hoping to gain final agreement on all aspects of the program at the Berlin summit. EU Executive Commission spokesman Nico Wegter acknowledged in comments to RFE/RL that the road toward Berlin is rough:
"We must prepare ourselves in the coming days for more crises and nervousness and all kinds of difficult debates, but eventually I think a final package will be agreed, whether it is at the end of this month or a later stage."
Agreement on the Agenda 2000 reforms is seen as an essential pre-condition for eastward expansion of the union early in the next century. The present EU budgetary policies will collapse if they are carried over into a union swollen by the addition of poorer eastern members. Wegter says the EU members are aware of what's at stake:
"Everybody bears in mind that what is at stake is more than just the union, it is also the question of whether we are prepared to accept our responsibility towards Central and Eastern Europe. The European Union cannot afford to delay the enlargement process. Therefore, it is essential that a solution be found for the Agenda 2000."
The pre-accession aid package will be administered under several instruments, called ISPA, SAPARD and PHARE. ISPA will finance projects in transport and the environment; SAPARD will finance agricultural sector improvements; and PHARE will concentrate on institution building, investment and coordination of the other two programs.
Concretely, EU assistance on environmental issues could relate, for instance, to decommissioning and cleaning up unsafe nuclear reactors in the East. Agricultural assistance could relate to improving food quality and consumer protection.
The pre-accession aid package is not the only financing that will be available to the eastern candidate countries. The sum of $24 billion covers only the assistance before the countries join the union. But the front runners -- such as Estonia, Slovenia, and the Czech Republic -- will likely become members ahead of the 2006 date for expiry of the aid package.
In that case, as each one joins, it will cease receiving money from the pre-accession package. Instead, as a member, each eastern country will be entitled to benefit in other ways, namely from the EU's internal support programs. That's bearing in mind that each is expected to be a net receiver of assistance from the EU budget, as opposed to a net contributor to the budget.
The amount of this so-called accession aid -- as distinct from the pre-accession aid -- is likely to be another $20 billion or more. The EU members are still discussing that question, and there are differences of view, so it is not yet possible to say with certainty the figure that will eventually emerge.