Brussels, 28 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- European Union Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen said today the EU must give candidates ample time to implement EU regulations to avoid "social and economic upheavals."
Verheugen said the EU must understand that adopting EU rules in sectors like the environment, energy, taxation, and border controls involves significant economic, social, and budgetary costs for candidates. Most candidates are scheduled to start discussing these issues under the six-month Belgian EU presidency that begins on 1 July.
"Flexibility on the part of the EU is unavoidable if we want to ensure that the implementation of EU legislation does not cause great social and economic upheavals in candidate countries. It is also necessary to guarantee support for EU accession in public opinion [in candidate countries]."
Verheugen said the toughest challenges were likely to be EU demands for candidates to liberalize their energy markets and take over the Union's social, technical, and environmental standards in transport policy. He said candidates would also suffer "clear price increases" after adjusting their taxation rates to EU regulations.
Verheugen said the EU must find a balance in the coming months between ensuring that its single market will function smoothly after enlargement, and granting candidates the necessary transition periods to adapt to EU rules painlessly.
The enlargement commissioner indicated, however, that candidates must be ready to yield to certain sensitivities in EU public opinion. Ceding to German and Austrian demands, some candidates have already accepted maximum seven-year curbs on the freedom of their labor force to work in current EU member-states. Verheugen said further negotiations on other difficult issues would proceed using the same "yardstick."
Among the most controversial subjects yet to be discussed is agriculture. The start of negotiations on certain technical aspects of agricultural policy will be overseen by the upcoming Belgian presidency. The more contentious financial aspects of agriculture -- involving candidates' claims for large production quotas and direct subsidy payments on a par with what current EU members get -- should be settled under the Spanish presidency in early 2002.
Verheugen said today he was certain that talks on agriculture would not be delayed by either an internal EU policy review scheduled for mid-2002, or by the French or German elections, also scheduled for 2002. Germany is the greatest net contributor to the EU budget, of which agricultural subsidies make up more than 40 percent. France is the biggest recipient of agricultural aid.
Verheugen said that after the EU's mid-June Goteburg summit, the prospects of finishing accession talks with front-runners by the end of 2002 appeared "more realistic than ever." He said that once the accession treaties are signed, the necessary ratification procedures should be finished in time to allow the first new members to participate in the June 2004 European Parliament elections "as full members."
Verheugen warned, however, that EU accession in 2004 was not guaranteed for any candidate country, as none of them is yet able to adequately implement all EU rules.
Verheugen went on to say that it was therefore too early to predict how many countries would join the EU in the first wave. He said that with most second-wave countries having now caught up with the first wave in accession talks, up to 10 countries have a realistic chance to accede in 2004. Only Bulgaria and Romania have so far counted themselves out of the race to join in 2004.
Addressing Poland's relatively low standing among the front-runners, Verheugen said this should not be accorded too much importance. He said Poland was ready to conclude talks on a number of open chapters, and "certainly" had the potential to catch up with the front-runners after its elections are held in September.
But Verheugen added that although Poland is an important candidate, it will nevertheless be treated like all the others -- according to its individual achievements.
Finally, assessing the importance of the EU's Nice Treaty for enlargement, Verheugen said that although expansion was "technically possible" without the treaty's ratification by all 15 members, politically it would be a "non-starter."