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EU: Enlargement Negotiations Adhere To Tough Criteria

  • Breffni O'Rourke

Five more Central and East European countries are about to open the long process of accession negotiations with the European Union in Brussels. Ahead of the negotiations, the EU has warned that there will be no watering down of its tough membership criteria in the talks with Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Correspondent Breffni O'Rourke reports.

Prague, 15 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Substantive membership negotiations are getting under way (on March 28) between the European Union's Executive Commission and the five second-wave eastern candidate countries -- Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, Latvia, and Lithuania.

The EU divides accession negotiations into 31 subject areas, which it calls chapters. The commission has proposed that for each of those five countries, the talks should initially cover at least five chapters, including those relating to small business, education, science, external relations, and common security policy. These are seen as the easiest of the chapters, largely because EU members and the eastern applicants already have much in common in those areas.

Bulgaria has been offered negotiations in one further area, cultural and audio-visual policy. Slovakia, Latvia and Lithuania have been offered that subject as well, plus two more areas each, competitions policy and statistics.

Over the coming months and even years, negotiations will be opened on all the chapters. However, the term "negotiations" is somewhat exaggerated in this context, since the process largely consists of the EU side explaining what the candidates have to do to meet EU norms in each of the given areas. As one Brussels-based Bulgarian diplomat, Vesselin Valkanov, puts it:

"These are not classical negotiations, you are not sitting there bargaining in the true sense of the word. You are an applicant, and the rules of the club are as follows, so basically if you are aspiring to become a member of this particular club, you will have to accept the rules that are being laid out for you, and not only for you, but for those who are already members of the club."

Commission officials have made clear that the EU will maintain a hard line; there will be no softening of requirements for the less advanced second-wave countries. The EU's new chief negotiator on enlargement, Eneko Landaburu of Spain, says the thousands of pages of the EU body of rules must not only be adopted by candidates, but also seriously applied in real situations.

Landaburu says there can be no "handouts" to the future members. What counts, he says, is their state of preparedness, for their own sake and the sake of present EU members. As Valkanov says:

"On the bulk of the rules, or the so-called acquis communautaire, there won't be any bargaining, simply we must find ways to incorporate them in our legislation and to also effectively implement them in our daily work in Bulgaria and not argue whether we accept them or not."

In specific cases where a candidate considers that applying the rules is especially difficult, it can ask for a transition period after accession, to give it extra time to reach compliance. Diplomats say it's at this point that the only real bargaining enters the whole process: bargaining over the terms and length of transition periods. First-waver Hungary, for instance, has asked for 35 such periods.

For its part, the EU has made plain it does not favor many transition periods, and even when allowed they must be limited in time and scope.

In theory, candidates can go a step further and ask for a "derogation," meaning a permanent exemption from EU rules in a particular area. However, one EU official said it's been made clear to all the eastern candidates from the start that no derogations are expected.

None of the first-wave countries from Eastern Europe (Poland, Hungary, Slovenia, Estonia, and the Czech Republic) have asked for derogations during their two years of negotiations, and the official said none are expected from second-wavers.

Not all the candidates like this hard line by the EU, as some see undertones of political self-interest to it. Front-runners like Hungary hint that this approach by Brussels could be designed to slow entry. EU enlargement negotiator Landaburu denies political pressures have any impact on the enlargement process. But it is clear that the pressures exist in many forms.

Just one example is provided by the foreign minister in Austria's controversial new rightist government, Benita Ferrero-Waldner. She says Austria wants a period of restriction on the movement of people and services from the east into the EU, in order to protect Austrian jobs and companies. Germany also favors such a restrictive period.

Senior EU figures, including Landaburu and Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen, are adamant that setting dates for entry of new members is a pointless exercise at this stage. All in all, it looks like the second-wave countries have a long haul ahead of them.