For the countries hoping to join the EU, the year 2000 marked a step forward. While the year ends without any specific commitments from members on enlargement, the most advanced candidate states can now hope to join in 2003 or 2004. The Nice summit at the end of the year, while falling short on many issues of internal reform, at least demonstrated in concrete terms that EU planners foresee a Union one day stretching to the Baltics and Balkans.
Brussels, 15 December 2000 (RFE/RL) -- For the past five years, European Union membership for the 10 Central and East European candidate states has always -- in the words of Polish President Alexander Kwasniewski -- seemed "five years out of reach."
In 1995, the date offered by German Chancellor Helmut Kohl was 2000. In 1998, when Poland, together with the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary and Slovenia opened accession talks, the date was surmised to be 2003.
But at the close of this year there are indications the "five-year barrier" may finally be broken.
In November, the European Commission issued a surprising report saying advanced candidates could finish accession talks as soon as 2002. Assuming the first accession treaties are signed and ratification by all member states takes 18 months, this would mean that new members could join by early 2004.
That timetable was indirectly affirmed by December's EU summit in Nice. Union leaders said in a declaration that they hoped the first new members could join in time to participate in the next elections to the European Parliament. Those elections take place in June 2004. Still, the summit left the timing of any future accessions vague.
The optimism was confirmed by the incoming Swedish EU presidency. Sweden takes over the six-month rotating EU presidency from France on January 1.
Sweden's ambassador to the EU, Gunnar Lund, says that by the end of his country's presidency in June, it may be possible to answer questions about which countries will be the first to enter and when.
"And I would not be surprised if at the end of our presidency we will be able already to discern the final stretch, so to say, for at least a few or a handful of candidate countries. And hopefully we could establish this as a fact and even perhaps talk in terms of timetables and road maps."
Lund was presumably speaking about the countries that until now have been seen as the leading candidates: Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Slovenia and Cyprus.
But even that may not be a foregone conclusion, since this year saw remarkable progress by countries previously relegated to the second wave: Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Malta. These countries opened accession talks only at the start of the year but have made rapid progress since then.
Of the former Communist bloc states, Slovakia and Latvia have especially excelled in negotiations. Slovakia has closed 10 of the total of 31 chapters that make up the body of EU legislation which candidates must adopt before joining the union. Latvia has closed eight chapters. Malta has closed 12 chapters of EU law.
By comparison, the relative laggards of the first group -- Poland and the Czech Republic -- have closed talks on 13 chapters.
The EU has consistently said every candidate country will be judged solely on its merits and that all "second wave" countries have a chance to catch up with frontrunners.
Indeed, this formal distinction between "first" and "second" waves was buried last month by the EU's Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen:
"Because at least two of them (that is, Slovakia and Malta) have already caught up. They are already so close to the countries which are negotiating [for] more than two years that we simply must give up the concept of groups (that is, waves). We have already dissolved that concept in our enlargement strategy paper and in our regular [progress] reports."
The Nice summit also took a decisive step in projecting how the new members would fit into existing decision-making structures.
Following days of difficult debate on how members in the future would decide on the most difficult issues, summit participants agreed on a formula to re-weight votes in the important Council of Ministers.
All of the candidate states were included in the re-weighting and received relatively favorable treatment in the assignment of votes.
Under the formula, Poland will have equal weight with Spain with 27 votes, leaving it just two votes shy of Germany, the EU's most populous country. Romania will have more votes than the Netherlands and other smaller current members -- because its population is larger than each of theirs-- and Lithuania will have the same number as Denmark and Ireland.
Summit participants also agreed to raise the number of EU commissioners to 27 from the current 20, suggesting that some day each member will have its own commissioner.
Candidates are still well-advised to keep an eye on developments. Negotiations on truly difficult issues such as agriculture and the free movement of labor have not yet commenced. And before agreement with the candidates can be reached, the EU must reach consensus on changes in its own common agricultural policy.