Negotiators from six European Union candidate countries met EU officials in Brussels today for the first round of accession talks under the EU's current Belgian presidency. The meeting marked an important shift in negotiations, which are to emphasize the "quality" rather than "speed" of the talks. The Belgian presidency extended invitations only to those candidates that are able to make significant progress on issues that are now "on the table." The remaining six candidates must wait until October for the next meeting.
Brussels, 27 July 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The EU's incoming Belgian presidency -- scheduled to run from July to December -- broke new ground today in EU accession talks.
Although the talks produced no significant breakthroughs, today's round set a double precedent.
It was the first time candidate negotiators met their EU counterparts in July, normally part of the long summer holiday season in Brussels.
The timing of the meeting met with some criticism among candidates, coming less than a month after the end of Sweden's rotating presidency of the EU. Some candidates felt there was not enough to discuss to warrant another round of talks.
To circumvent the problem, the Belgian presidency introduced a second novelty -- extending invitations only to candidates who have outstanding issues to discuss. These included Bulgaria, Cyprus, Hungary, Poland, Romania, and Slovenia -- exactly half of the 12 countries actively involved in enlargement talks.
Belgium's ambassador to the EU, Franz van Daele, defended the decision today:
"The fact that we have had negotiations with certain countries and not with all is the proof and illustration of the importance that we attach to differentiation. One has to be ready for negotiations. We invited to talks those countries with which we can advance substantively."
This approach reflects Belgium's determination to prioritize the quality, rather than the speed, of accession talks. It also follows the EU's so-called "differentiation principle," according to which candidates are judged according to individual objective merit.
Nevertheless, if such selectivity becomes the norm, candidate countries may discover that their ability to present the EU with a united front on key issues will be severely undermined.
Overall, the closest today's talks came to producing a breakthrough was when Bulgaria's chief negotiator, Vladimir Kissiov, indicated this week's change of government in Sofia could herald a quickening of the country's EU integration drive.
Referring to campaign promises made by Bulgaria's ex-king, Simeon Saxecoburggotski, who leads the new government, Kissiov said Bulgaria could join the EU a year earlier than expected:
"According to [the new prime minister's campaign promises], it is possible to move the target date to 2003 [for] the conclusion of negotiations, maybe."
Kisiov said this would mean Bulgaria could join the EU in 2005.
Bulgaria's previous governments have said they would like to conclude accession talks by the end of 2004 and join the EU in 2006.
All other candidates, except Romania, have said they want to join the EU in 2004. Romania's target date remains 2007.
Today's other success stories include first-wave backmarker Poland, which although overtaken by second-wave countries like Slovakia and Lithuania, managed to reclaim lost ground by closing talks on the energy "chapter" -- one of the 31 "chapters" of EU law which candidates must adopt before accession.
Poland's negotiators also said the country is close to winning a small but significant concession from the EU in the fisheries "chapter," where Warsaw wants the EU to recognize the Baltic sprat as a staple food. In most of the EU, the sprat is used to produce animal meal and is not for human consumption. If Poland succeeds, the EU will have to set up market intervention mechanisms to subsidize local producers should prices of sprats fall below a predetermined level.
Hungary, one of the frontrunners in accession talks, did not close any "chapters." However, it achieved a small breakthrough in its own right when it became the first candidate to receive the EU's common position on the justice and internal affairs "chapter." Among other things, this chapter deals with the EU's future borders and the legislative and technical measures expected from candidates before they can join the so-called Schengen agreement, which abolishes internal borders between signatories.
To be able to join the Schengen area, candidates must bring their visa regimes into full alignment with those of the EU. They must also set up fully Schengen-compliant controls on borders which will become the EU's external borders after accession.
Membership of the Schengen area will not necessarily coincide with EU membership. According to Hungarian diplomatic sources, the EU has indicated that even the best-prepared candidates will have to wait until the end of 2005 before border controls between old and new members are lifted.