European Union officials in Brussels this week reached agreement on two key chapters of enlargement talks. For weeks Spain blocked consensus on the free movement of labor, demanding it first be given guarantees on post-expansion development aid. France, meanwhile, tried to link the free movement of capital to levels of agricultural subsidies. But both countries have now dropped their objections, averting a potentially damaging row over the costs of enlargement at the EU's summit in Gothenburg, Sweden, in two weeks. RFE/RL's Brussels correspondent Ahto Lobjakas reports.
Brussels, 31 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The governments of Spain and France have abandoned objections that threatened to stall accession negotiations on two crucial "chapters" of EU regulations.
At a meeting of EU ambassadors yesterday in Brussels, Spain withdrew its "reservation" over a German- and Austrian-backed request to bar Eastern European workers from EU labor markets for up to seven years after enlargement. Spain's change of heart enabled the officials to reach a common agreement on the "free movement of people" chapter, which will now be presented tomorrow (1 June) during talks in Brussels with first-wave candidate negotiators.
Reports say that under a compromise arrangement, there would be an initial two-year ban on the free movement of workers from new states to all present EU members. After that time, individual members could still bar workers from new members for a total of five more years.
Spain, tacitly supported by Portugal and Greece, had been trying to link the issue to guarantees on post-enlargement development aid. Currently, regions in all three countries -- as well as in Italy, Germany, Ireland, and Britain -- receive billions of euros a year from the EU's structural and cohesion funds. Structural funds are presently allocated to EU regions whose per capita gross domestic product, or GDP, remains below 75 percent of the EU average.
The somewhat smaller cohesion funds are aimed at EU members whose per capita GDP is lower than 90 percent of the EU average. Under current rules, the accession of up to 12 relatively poor Eastern European countries would disqualify most of the current recipients from development aid.
Germany, the EU's biggest net contributor, has steadfastly refused to accept any link between the issues. It says that any discussions on future funds must wait until the end of the current EU budgetary period in 2006.
What was agreed on yesterday was an effective decoupling of enlargement talks from considerations of post-enlargement development aid. Jean-Christophe Filori, the European Commission's enlargement spokesman, confirmed today that while discussions on development aid were not yet settled, they would no longer affect enlargement talks:
"This issue, as we understand it, is not linked any more at all to the issue of the free movement of persons. The linkage is gone. This is the good news about it -- there is an agreement among the 15 member states to present a common position on the [chapter of] the free movement of persons."
For a while, Spain's intransigence had threatened to open a Pandora's Box of problems linked to the financial effects of enlargement, threatening to stall accession talks. Germany -- together with other current and future net contributors to the EU budget -- hinted that any formal acknowledgment of Spain's concerns would also have to take note of their reluctance to increase their contributions.
Spain's linkage drew criticism from political analysts, like Steven Everts of the Center for European Reform, a London-based think tank. Everts said:
"It was preposterous, what Spain did, [making] this blatant linkage. I'm not saying that the substantive Spanish concerns are entirely without merit. They need to be addressed, they need to be discussed -- but [at an appropriate time] when those budgetary questions and transfers of regional aid are discussed."
France is worried about the effects of enlargement on the generous agricultural subsidies its farmers currently receive. These fears were largely dispelled -- or at least postponed -- today, when France agreed to clear the way for agreement on a common EU position on the "free movement of capital" chapter. Certain candidates -- notably Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia -- have sought transition periods delaying sales of agricultural lands and secondary residences to EU citizens for up to 18 years after enlargement.
Until today, France insisted that the issue should be linked with that of agricultural subsidies to new members, arguing that curbs on land sales would offer farmers in new members a competitive advantage. In view of the advantage, France said, those new members seeking curbs on land sales should forego some of the future EU agricultural subsidies.
It was confirmed today that the EU can proceed with a common position. It has agreed to a seven-year transition period on land sales -- with the proviso that the issue can be reopened next year within the framework of talks on agriculture.
The removal of the Spanish and French objections on the chapters of labor movement and capital mobility means that the EU has averted the very real danger of its upcoming Gothenburg summit (15-16 June) degenerating into a damaging row on the affordability of enlargement. There is little doubt, however, that most of the issues will return in some form in 2002. It is generally accepted within the EU that most member countries will try to drive hard bargains with candidates to maximize possible economic and political gains.