Austria's minister of economic affairs has expressed confidence that 10 countries will join the European Union in 2004 in what he called the most important project in European history. Speaking on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in New York, Austrian Minister Martin Bartenstein also called for closer EU integration with Russia. There were also encouraging words for Russia's candidacy for membership in the World Trade Organization from Director-General Mike Moore.
New York, 4 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Austria's minister of economic affairs, Martin Bartenstein, says the enlargement of the European Union by 10 members is sure to take place in 2004 and he's confident of further EU expansion into southeastern Europe.
Bartenstein told a news conference in New York on 2 February that the most difficult issues in the EU accession negotiations remain for the top candidates, including in agriculture, regional policy, and finance. But he said they are on course to finish by 2004. He also expressed optimism about Romania and Bulgaria joining in 2007, along with perhaps one other southern Balkan state.
He said enlargement would bring economic benefits to all sides, but he sees the political impact as more important.
"From my point of view, it's a primarily political project in order to stabilize democracies, in order to increase stability, in order to enable Europe to be in peace," he said.
Bartenstein said Austria has already heavily benefited from its trade ties to neighboring Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, and the Czech Republic, four of the top EU candidates. He said Austria stands to gain the most of all EU members from the union's expansion.
Bartenstein was speaking on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum, which has been well attended by finance and development officials from Eastern Europe.
The economics minister made no mention of Austria's dispute with the Czech Republic over the Temelin nuclear plant. Members of the rightist Freedom Party, part of Austria's governing coalition, have urged an Austrian veto of the Czech Republic's candidacy if it does not close Temelin.
Bartenstein, a member of Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel's right-of-center People's Party, made a general reference to candidate countries improving their environmental standards.
"Of course, it's necessary to have transition periods, free movement of labor will be one of the issues, free movement of capital," Bartenstein said. "The environment will be also one thing where you cannot come up with European standards from day one on."
Austria's finance minister, Karl-Heinz Grasser, recently expressed unhappiness with the European Commission's proposals for funding EU enlargement because it would mean a major increase in Austria's contribution. Reuters news agency quoted Grasser as saying he would lobby to bring down the costs for Austria, which is one of the main net contributors to EU funds.
But Bartenstein said the Commission's estimates show that enlargement will be affordable for EU states for the first few years. He also said recent public opinion polls show support for enlargement rising to 60 percent among Austrians. That's up 10 percent from last year for Austria.
Poland's finance minister, Marek Belka, told the press conference that the EU candidate countries will face especially tough challenges in the process of monetary union, which will unfold in about five years. He said strong leadership will be essential at each stage of adjustment.
"If their leaders are decisive, determined with unequivocal support for EU access, then the people [of candidate countries] will follow," Belka said. "What people do not like -- and correctly so -- is when the government is in doubt and projects this lack of clarity to the people."
The comments came at a time of disappointment for the 10 leading candidates over proposals put forward by the EU Commission in late January that would limit aid to new members in their first years in the Union. The prime ministers of Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia are to meet in Hungary on 19 February to agree on common arguments for negotiations with the EU.
Bartenstein, the Austrian minister, also said integration between the EU and Russia will be vital in the years ahead. He expressed support for increasing formal ties between the EU and Moscow.
At a later news conference at the forum, the director-general of the World Trade Organization (WTO), Mike Moore, also spoke encouragingly about Russia. He said there was a window of opportunity for Russia to join the WTO within the next two years.
Moore said Russia's government has already passed key legislation to strengthen its candidacy and has the support of two influential officials -- EU Trade Commissioner Pascal Lamy and U.S. Trade Representation Robert Zoellick.
"I would be very, very surprised if Russia was not a member at the next ministerial," Moore said. "But of course this is all up to how hungry, how determined the country in accession is."
Moore also expressed regret for what he said was the WTO's neglect of relations with the Balkans and Central Asia in recent years.
"We have done very little, to our shame, in the Balkans. We have done very little in Central Asia, and this year we have planned some major [ministry-level meetings], not only accessions and capacity building but wider and more creative in both those regions, in April and May."
The next high-level ministerial meeting of the WTO must be held within two years of November's meeting in Doha, Qatar, which launched a new round of global trade talks.