Officials at the EU summit in Nice have prepared a draft set of conclusions on the union's prospective enlargement that they say represents a step forward for candidate states. The draft falls short of offering concrete entry dates for membership, but does indicate the leading candidate states can expect membership sometime in 2003 or 2004. RFE/RL correspondent Ahto Lobjakas reports from Nice.
Nice, France; 8 December 2000 (RFE/RL) -- European Union officials confirm privately that leaders meeting today for the second day of the EU Nice summit have approved a draft set of conclusions dealing with enlargement.
The conclusions stop short of setting concrete entry dates for candidate countries, but officials say they represent a step forward in setting an accession timeframe for the first candidates.
Officials now hope the first candidate countries can join the union in time to take part in the next elections of the European Parliament. That vote is scheduled to take place in June 2004.
The contents of the draft conclusions are expected to be formally approved and published on Sunday, after the end of the summit.
Denmark's foreign minister, Niels Helveg Pedersen, referring to the conclusions, says progress at the summit on enlargement should be seen as a very positive development by the candidates. Denmark is one of the strongest supporters of enlargement:
"It should be seen as a clear signal from the 15 [EU members], that we now know that enlargement is just around the corner. It's not for 10 to 15 years, it's in the next few years and that we are getting used to this fact of life."
The conclusions are similar to those put forward in an enlargement strategy document issued last month by the European Commission.
According to the document, negotiations with the most advanced candidate countries could be concluded by June 2002. Ratification procedures of any new accession treaties would likely take about 18 months, putting the first accessions at the end of 2003 or beginning of 2004.
EU leaders also upgraded their overtures to the western Balkan states. At the EU's Feira summit in June, the countries of the western Balkans were described as "potential candidates." But a paragraph devoted exclusively to the region in the current Nice summit conclusions says the EU offers these countries "a clear prospect of accession."
The conclusions include a reference to concerns that enlargement engenders in certain EU border regions. The reference is regarded as a harbinger of lengthy transition periods after enlargement, curbing the free movement of labor from new members to Austria and Germany. In both countries, the fear of an influx of migrant workers is a potent domestic political issue.
The conclusions represent the wrapping-up of what EU diplomats at Nice term the "first summit." The "second summit," which began this afternoon, deals with the complicated issues of internal reform.
Internal reform is seen as the biggest single precondition for enlargement and its pace will inevitably determine that of enlargement.
Today, EU leaders concentrated on two key reform issues: redistributing votes between member states and further curbs on the use of national veto rights.
Although final decisions are unlikely to emerge before Sunday, it appears that on the redistribution of votes, the majority of delegations prefer the so-called "double majority" option. According to this option, votes would have to be carried by a majority of states which at the same represent more than half of the EU's population.
Jonathan Faull, chief spokesman for the European Commission, says this option would add legitimacy to the EU's decision-making procedures.
"We [the European Commission] have advocated and supported this idea from the beginning. It seems to me that this is the wisest, the most objective, and the most understandable way to rearrange the Council's [that is, Council of Ministers'] decision processes. It is also an important reflection of our conception of the EU as a union of both states and people at the same time."
The present voting system takes account of only member-state votes, not their respective populations, although the number of votes each member has is to a degree linked to its size.