This year is predicted to be a breakthrough year for the European Union's plans to enlarge eastward. RFE/RL's Brussels correspondent Ahto Lobjakas spoke with the man directly in charge of the EU's side of expansion negotiations -- Eneko Landaburu, the head of the European Commission's Directorate General for Enlargement -- to find out what lies in store for candidates.
Brussels, 24 January 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The European Commission likes to describe its work as that of an honest broker. In a constant tug-of-war between the national interests of the EU's 15 member-states, the Commission says it does the so-called dirty work without which the Union could not function.
Nowhere is this as evident as matters concerning expansion, says Eneko Landaburu, who is in charge of the daily conduct of accession talks with candidate countries. Landaburu, who is an EU civil servant, is placed just under Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen, a political appointee.
Looking back on nearly three years of negotiations, Landaburu -- like Verheugen -- sees no major contradiction between statements that simultaneously contend that the European Commission has always done its best and that yet it is possible to speed up the talks radically.
The apparent contradiction stems from the Commission's ambiguous position in the expansion process. While the Commission conducts accession talks, their content is determined by member states, whose positions the Commission collates and relays to the candidates.
It is perhaps a measure of the Commission's -- and Landaburu's -- sincerity that two months ago it issued what it described as a "roadmap" on enlargement that for the first time set an end date for talks. It said leading candidates could wrap up the talks by the end of 2002.
The Commission did this during the EU's French presidency, for which enlargement was not an overriding priority. But it did so in anticipation of the much more enlargement-friendly Swedish presidency that took office this month and will last through June.
It is thus with some frustration that Landaburu fends off suggestions that Sweden -- like the leading candidates -- would like an even faster approach.
Landaburu says there are no significant differences between Sweden and the Commission. He says the Commission's road map is close to the maximum that can be attained.
"In our view, we think that this road map that we proposed -- it's a very ambitious one, it's difficult to fulfill and to achieve. So, to speed up more the process, it seems to us difficult. Not impossible, but difficult."
Landaburu points out the pace of the negotiations will ultimately depend on how fast candidates are able to adopt and implement EU regulations -- known collectively as the "acquis communautaire" and divided into 31 chapters.
So far, leading candidates have presented a united front to the EU on all fundamental issues, trying to strengthen their negotiating positions. For example, all candidates demand the same direct agricultural subsidies upon enlargement that are available to EU farmers, and seek transitional arrangements in many areas to avoid harming their competitiveness.
Landaburu points out that all that stands between candidates and accession is closing talks on the 31 chapters of EU law. This is simple enough, provided candidates make no complex demands and thus eliminate the need for extensive consultations with EU members.
"It is up to [the candidates] if they need to ask some particular requests [for transition periods], some particular exceptions, some particular derogations, or not. If they accept the acquis communautaire in some particular chapter, and they give us the guarantee that they will be able to implement it and to enforce it, there is no reason not to close the chapter."
Many believe that, in return for a promise of speedier progress, the EU is thinking of applying a mix of strategies such as "divide and rule" and "stick and carrot" to break down candidate resistance on difficult issues. That posture seems to be confirmed by Landaburu. He says the EU could extend the principle of differential treatment to issues where its member states are asking for transitional arrangements, notably Germany and Austria on the issue of free movement of labor.
"We believe that we have in front of us a lot of flexibility possible to introduce to make some differentiation between countries. Why? Because the situation is not the same [everywhere]. What we have to solve or to tackle, for instance, in the borders between Germany and the candidate countries are not the same problems we have to solve with my country -- Spain -- and the candidate countries, or Estonia, maybe, or Lithuania. That's why I think we have to think about some solutions differentiating the situation."
Landaburu says the key question is whether candidates are actually able to implement the EU law they adopt. At this stage, he says, it is still impossible to say whether any of the frontrunners can fully implement the whole of the acquis communautaire by 2004, which now seems the most likely entry date for the first wave.
Landaburu also avoids saying which countries might make up the first wave, saying only that the process of adoption and implementation of EU regulations could be easier for smaller countries like Estonia than for larger ones like Poland.
Landaburu effectively rules out Bulgaria and Romania from the first wave, saying their problems are "too difficult."
Although the general issue of enlargement is no more in question, and the dates for the first wave have effectively been fixed, Landaburu acknowledges that some important ambiguities remain in the EU's approach.
The most significant among these is how precisely to measure progress in implementation of EU law. Administrative capacity to implement the regulations has been raised by the EU to the status of a third accession criterion after the so-called Copenhagen criteria specifying the need for a functioning democracy and market economy.
Landaburu says that this is the first enlargement in which the EU has been concerned with implementation, and the notion is therefore still being defined.
"It's the first time that we have introduced the condition of administrative capacity for implementation in the [whole] exercise [of enlargement]. This was decided by our heads of government at the summit of Madrid in 1995. Now, our work in the Commission, and in particular my services, is to define [together] with all the services of the Commission, what we mean by 'administrative capacity.' We are in a process of internally assessing what are the basic requirements needed to guarantee that a candidate country [is] in a position to implement the acquis communautaire."
Landaburu says this is easier to do in some areas than others. For example, he says, it is not too difficult to check if a candidate has the necessary legislation and institutions in place to apply EU rules on structural or regional policy or in the field of competition. The areas of justice and home affairs, especially when it comes to training the judiciary, are much more complex.