Brussels, 21 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Negotiators from most of the 12 European Union candidate countries gathered in Brussels today for a lightning end-of-the-year round of talks to tie up loose ends.
The most notable result of the meeting was a decision by Poland to accept the EU demand of up to a seven-year delay after accession before workers from the new member countries are allowed automatic access to the labor markets of the current members.
Poland's chief negotiator at accession talks with the European Union, Jan Truszczynski, today said the Polish decision had not been an easy one.
"The transitional mechanism proposed by the [current EU] member states was, for a very long time, questioned by Poland," Truszczynski said. "And indeed, while accepting the transitional mechanism as it now stands, we still underline our view that there is no sufficient economic basis, nor demographic basis, for having an arrangement of that nature."
Truszczynski said Poland had accepted the transitional arrangement after "intensive" contacts with EU member states. He said Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Ireland had told Poland they would open their labor markets from the day of enlargement. Britain, Spain, France, and Greece have indicated they would only use the first two of the maximum seven years the transitional arrangement can run.
Poland was the last leading candidate to accept the restrictions on labor movement, leaving only Bulgaria and Romania to discuss the issue.
However, Truszczynski also indicated his country now expects the EU to yield to Polish demands for lengthy and complex transitional arrangements before foreigners are allowed to buy agricultural or forestry land in Poland.
For most other candidate countries, today's hastily organized meeting was an opportunity to close talks on the "transport" chapter -- another of the 31 chapters of EU law the candidates must negotiate before accession.
The meeting was called late last night by the EU's outgoing Belgian presidency after Austria dropped its blanket opposition to closing transport talks. Until yesterday, Austria had prevented the EU from reaching a common position on the issue, demanding its EU partners first sign up to an agreement limiting transit traffic of heavy-goods vehicles through Austria.
Yesterday's agreement removed an important obstacle threatening to delay accession talks. According to the "road map" of accession talks endorsed by EU leaders most recently at their Laeken summit on 14-15 December, the candidates were to be presented with a common EU position on transport by the end of the year. Under the "road map," talks from January 2002 onward are to concentrate on the sensitive issue of the access that candidates will enjoy to the EU's generous agricultural subsidies and regional development aid.
Despite the short notice, Hungary, Slovenia, Latvia, and Lithuania took advantage of the offer and closed the "transport" chapter today.
Slovenia became the only Central and Eastern European candidate so far to escape an EU transition request -- which in this instance is aimed at barring candidate road haulers from operating in EU domestic markets for up to five years after accession.
Setting an important precedent, the EU exempted Slovenia from the transitional arrangements, accepting Slovenia's argument that its near-EU average standard of living would not afford its haulers any competitive advantages over their EU colleagues.
The EU earlier this year rejected the same argument when Slovenia attempted to win an exemption from the EU's demand of a maximum seven-year freeze on worker movement between new and old members. Slovenia's chief negotiator, Janez Potocnik, today said the EU's sudden readiness to differentiate between candidates should also be in evidence next year at talks over subsidies and aid. This is likely to worry other candidates, especially those larger and less adaptable than Slovenia.
Slovakia put a worrying episode in its recent history behind it today, closing the "financial controls" chapter. This drew a line under the controversy sparked earlier this year by the resignation of a high government official responsible for EU aid, Roland Toth, after he was charged with fraud.
Although the EU briefly suspended aid payments to Slovakia in April, payments were soon resumed after the EU's enlargement commissioner, Guenter Verheugen, said the scandal did not affect Slovakia's position in enlargement negotiations.
The closure of the "financial controls" chapter means the EU is generally satisfied with Slovakia's efforts to combat financial crime.
Bulgaria today made it clear that it has not given up hope of catching up with the first wave, although the Laeken summit lumped it together with Romania in its conclusions, indicating neither country has a realistic hope of joining the EU in 2004 along with the front-runners.
Bulgaria's deputy chief negotiator, Stanislav Daskalov, told EU officials today that Sofia believes "there is potential to go far beyond" the Laeken conclusions.
Erstwhile front-runner Estonia, as well as Cyprus and Romania, were absent from today's meeting, partly because of difficulties in flying delegations to Brussels at such short notice, and partly due to the fact that none of the three could expect to close any chapters.
After today's round of accession talks in Brussels, Slovenia has closed 26 of the 29 chapters currently on the table; followed by Cyprus, the Czech Republic and Hungary with 24; Latvia and Lithuania with 23; Slovakia with 22; Estonia, Malta, and Poland with 20; Bulgaria with 14; and Romania with nine.