European Union officials today agreed to invite six more nations, including five from Central and East Europe, to begin formal accession talks. RFE/RL correspondent Breffni O'Rourke sends this report from the Finnish capital Helsinki.
Helsinki, 10 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- At the first session of their summit in Helsinki this morning, leaders from the EU's 15 member states approved a recommendation from the European Union's Executive Commission to begin direct accession talks with six more candidates.
The formal announcement was made a short time later at a press conference attended by Finnish Prime Minister Paavo Lipponen and EU Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen. In making the announcement, Lipponen also gave word of the EU's decision on whether Turkey would be given the status of a candidate member.
"The European Council has made the following decisions this morning. First, we have decided to invite six new countries into the enlargement negotiations. They are Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Malta. Secondly, we have decided to set a goal for the European Union to be ready by the end of 2002 to take new members. It will depend on the individual performance of countries in the negotiations when they will be able to accede. And thirdly, we have decided to confirm that Turkey is a candidate for membership of the European Union."
While EU leaders accepted Turkey as a formal candidate for membership, the step does n-o-t commit the EU to any timeline on beginning formal accession talks with Ankara.
The news on formal accession talks with the other six was largely expected but still momentous. It first leaked out through unnamed Finnish officials. Then the Finnish presidency's chief spokesman, Reijo Kemppinen, confirmed it to RFE/RL.
"Yes", he said, "there was agreement and it was unanimous" as required by EU rules.
Kemppinen said no date was fixed for the start of direct negotiations but said he expected that they would begin in February.
Today's decision means that the six nations join six other candidates, which began accession negotiations with Brussels last year. The six already in talks are Estonia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovenia and Poland, as well as Cyprus.
Ahead of the formal announcement, Ricardo Levy, spokesman for EU Commission President Romano Prodi, said there will be n-o clear divide between the six nations which began accession talks last year and those who will begin talks in early 2000.
"The second six countries, if you wish to call them in that way, have all the chances to pick up the delay they presently have, let us say. This is clearly stated in the Commission composite paper, and the very same concept we are adopting of candidate countries being judged by their own merits means they are all on, if not on the same starting line -- because some of them started with an advantage -- they will all be given the same opportunities."
Though Finnish Prime Minister Lipponen said the EU would undertake to be ready to receive new members by the end of 2002, he indicated no actual dates for when enlargement might begin.
On that question, EU Enlargement Commissioner Verheugen said it is still too early to set dates. But he said the setting of dates might be possible by late next year.
Verheugen said that the Commission guarantees there will be no delay with the negotiations. He also said enlargement was a top priority for the Commission. He said troubles like those in Kosovo, which disturbed peace and security in Europe this year, are a driving motivation behind EU enlargement.
Verheugen said that one issue that should be looked at now is building a strong national consensus on EU membership within each candidate country. He was referring to opinion polls which show that many people in the candidate countries have lost interest in EU membership or are even opposed to it. Verheugen said that once attained, membership is forever.