Comments this week by European Union Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen that 2003 is a realistic date for the EU's first eastward expansion have created a stir among diplomats in Brussels. Another senior EU official, Eneko Landaburu, later cautioned that only two or three candidate nations could be ready by that date. Their remarks have triggered speculation about which eastern candidates might be "in" and which "out" in 2003.
Prague, 12 October 2000 (RFE/RL) -- European Union Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen sprang a surprise this week (Oct 10) by telling journalists it is "completely realistic" to assume that the Union could take in its first new members from Central and Eastern Europe as early as 2003.
His remarks are the clearest official espousal so far of so early a date for a first wave of eastward expansion. But Verheugen gave few details, declining to name any countries which might be in a first group and saying there is no "guarantee" that such an early enlargement will take place.
The following day (Oct 11), Eneko Landaburu, a senior European Commission official who works closely with Verheugen, did provide additional substance to the commissioner's remarks. Landaburu spoke of a possible scenario in which two or three countries would join in two or three years. But he said that a more probable scenario was that a first wave would enter only in 2005 -- but would comprise a larger number of countries.
The remarks of the two officials have touched off widespread speculation. Analyst Heather Grabbe of the London-based Center for European Reform sees it this way:
"The question is whether they (the EU) would go for a 'big bang' or a 'small bang' in terms of the number of countries that come in. Landaburu has taken what is clearly a commission line on it in that two or three [candidates] are technically ready. Probably there he is talking about Hungary, Estonia, and Slovenia. Basically, what he is trying to do is to say that there are technical criteria to be fulfilled, and these three countries meet them."
But technical qualifications are only one aspect of an equation that also has an important political dimension. Poland, the biggest of the eastern candidate states, is unlikely to be ready for inclusion in a 2003 enlargement. It is still struggling with internal reform, including difficult problems of agriculture and environment. As analyst Grabbe puts it: "From the commission's point of view, there is a case to be made for Poland to be put behind those three [other] countries. But politically it is very hard to carry that through, particularly with Germany."
Germany supports first-wave membership for Poland on the grounds that that country is too important politically to be left behind for later entry.
Bearing that in mind, the surprise comments by Verheugen and Landaburu could be interpreted as a signal from the European Commission to the EU's political leaders. The signal would be that the politicians can either have a mini-enlargement without Poland in 2003, or they can hold up the process for several years beyond that, until Warsaw meets all EU entry criteria.
Certainly, front-runners like Hungary, Estonia, and Slovenia are not eager to be held back from joining. Hungary in particular has insisted that each country should be judged on its own merits. Tomas Szucs, counselor at the Hungarian mission to the EU in Brussels, underlines Budapest's expectation of early membership.
"We very much hope so, and so far all the indications point to this direction. This is not [just] our own view, of course -- we share this view -- but it is the view of all the external observers, that Hungary, and possibly also Slovenia, is one of the best prepared, therefore we should get in."
Estonia, too, has made strenuous efforts to be among the leading candidates, and the county's representatives in Brussels reflect a quiet confidence. Ehdel Halliste, the press attache at the Estonian mission to the EU, says:
"We have been satisfied so far and we have seen that the enlargement process -- or the negotiation process to be more precise -- has been quite smooth and has had a quite a good pace. Therefore, we have been satisfied."
In London, analyst Grabbe says she views the Verheugen-Landaburu remarks as confirming that there is clear political momentum building up behind the idea that the EU should at last name definite enlargement dates.
She says the current French EU presidency plans to put forward a sort of road map for enlargement at the Nice summit in December. Originally, the intention was to avoid setting specific dates by then, but she says that intention may now be crumbling.