Goteborg, Sweden; 16 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- European Union leaders Saturday firmed up the enlargement timetable offered to candidates at last December's Nice summit. They agreed that the best-prepared candidates should be able to wrap up entry talks by the end of 2002 and participate in the 2004 European Parliament elections as members. Although the offer remains highly conditional, it gives the leading candidates their clearest perspective yet.
The Goteborg decision offers candidates what a diplomat from one EU member state described, on condition of anonymity, as a strong double date, which however remains subject to further conditions.
What the diplomat meant was that the offer does not amount to an unequivocal and final political commitment by the EU to admit certain candidate countries at a specified time. Rather, it 'fine-tunes' the decisions of last December's Nice summit, which already mentioned 2004 as the date when -- as the Nice summit conclusions put it -- the 'hoped' first new members could participate in European Parliament elections. The Nice summit conclusions also endorsed an earlier European Commission 'road map' for the future conduct of accession talks, saying leading candidates could finish negotiations by the end of 2002.
EU diplomats were visibly strained when they tried to explain what makes the Goteborg message different from the Nice one. The declaration adopted by EU leaders in Goteborg is one in which conditionals still abound. The final document makes this very obvious in its key formulation: provided that progress towards meeting the accession criteria continues at an unabated pace, the road map should make it possible to complete negotiations by the end of 2002 for those candidate countries that are ready.
However, the Goteborg message does amount to a significant psychological breakthrough, committing all EU members to relatively early enlargement. Any clarification of dates was, until Saturday morning, strongly resisted by Germany and France, for differing reasons.
Germany will hold local elections in some states in September 2001 and parliamentary elections in Fall 2002 and does not want to commit itself to any fundamental financial decision in enlargement talks before then. It has also made a strong commitment to Poland, which presently lags in talks, fearing that an early end date for talks could leave Warsaw unprepared to join the first wave of EU entrants.
France, too, has elections in early 2002, but it is also wary that an early date would force its hand in tough talks on agricultural subsidies in 2002.
The provision of clear dates in the Goteborg conclusions signifies a shift away from the political considerations that have so far prevailed in the thinking of many member countries. The EU now appears to put clear emphasis on the substance of talks, which bodes well for candidates like Hungary, Slovenia, Cyprus, and Estonia, which have advanced further in accession talks.
The Goteborg message bodes less well for Poland, especially given that Germany appears to have eased its hitherto unwavering commitment to having Poland enter the EU in the very first wave of enlargement. This was apparent in a comment made today by German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. Schroeder said: "I wish that Poland would be in the first group, but it is clear that it must make additional efforts to adopt and implement EU law."
Another sign of the EU's growing willingness to let the enlargement process be guided by considerations of the individual objective merits of candidates is the clear separation of Bulgaria and Romania from other candidates. Both countries lag far behind others in accession talks, and Saturday was the first time EU leaders noted this at the summit level, saying special effort will be devoted to assisting Bulgaria and Romania.