By Ahto Lobjakas/Breffni O'Rourke
An advance copy of the European Commission's annual progress report on candidate countries says the 10 front-runners will be ready to join the bloc in 2004. The report, which will be made public tomorrow, also says Bulgaria and Romania can expect to join in 2007. The 13th candidate, Turkey, will be offered enhanced financial assistance but no fixed date for starting accession talks.
Brussels, 8 October 2002 (RFE/RL)-- Barring an unprecedented change of mind, the European Commission will tomorrow officially confirm developments that have been in the offing since last December's Laeken summit.
At that time, European Union leaders named the 10 leading candidates likely to accede in 2004, adding that those left behind, i.e., Bulgaria and Romania, should be given their own timetables.
A draft copy of the report, which was obtained by RFE/RL, says the 10 front-runners -- Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia -- have all fulfilled the so-called Copenhagen political criteria of democracy, rule of law, and observance of human rights.
It says all 10 are functioning market economies and will have fulfilled the economic Copenhagen criteria by 2004. They are all said to have reached a "high degree of alignment" with EU law and to have made "considerable advances toward ensuring adequate administrative capacity" necessary to implement it fully.
Consequently, the commission says it recommends the closure of accession talks with the leading candidates by the end of this year. It also offers the "working hypothesis" that 10 countries can join the EU on 1 January 2004.
Assessing developments, senior researcher Peter Zervakis of Bonn University's ZEI think tank said it's clear the "transformation process" among the candidates will continue even after accession negotiations are completed in December. "It's already for months been clear that no [candidate] country will completely fulfill the criteria set by the acquis communautaire. There has been a competition about how fast each country will be able at least to manage to close all the chapters [of the entry negotiations], but actually the hard work will continue after December," Zervakis said.
The report says it would seem "reasonable to expect" that the 10 accession treaties could be signed in the spring of 2003. Once the treaties are signed, observers from the new members will be given observer status in all EU bodies "wherever legally possible."
The draft report warns that the EU will continue monitoring the front-runners' progress in implementing EU laws between signing the treaty and their actual accession. It says the EU will issue "early warning letters" to candidate governments whenever problems arise.
Two further "monitoring reports" will be compiled before 2004.
Following the example of the last enlargement involving Austria, Finland, and Sweden, the EU seeks two-year safeguard measures to suspend EU benefits temporarily if "persistent difficulties" should appear as a result of enlargement "in any sector of the economy" or in the areas of "freedom, security, and justice."
The commission also insists that the financial terms of enlargement be based on its January proposal, which among other things offers the new members 25 percent of EU farm subsidies in 2004.
The document says Bulgaria and Romania are to be offered a "revised accession strategy" with a suggested entry date of 2007. Both countries meet the EU's political criteria but fail on the economic count. Bulgaria is for the first time recognized as a functioning market economy, albeit with some qualifications, while the EU says Romania should shortly become one, provided reforms continue.
Assessing the situation in Bulgaria, Krassen Stanchev, head of the Institute of Market Economy in Sofia, said the market mechanism there is still an imperfect economic instrument and that the commission's citation will not change much in the short term. "It will speed up reform to a certain extent, but the homework is still there, and the Bulgarian players, including government, businessmen, and the judiciary...still have a vast amount of work ahead," Stanchev said.
Both countries can take heart from the affirmation that their accession process, according to the report, is "irreversible." They are also promised a "gradual but considerable" increase in preaccession aid, although it will be linked to their reform performance. The commission says the EU will "explore the opportunities" of giving the two countries observer status in certain EU institutions.
Although the document recommends the inclusion of Cyprus in the first wave, it reiterates the EU's preference for a prior resolution of the simmering conflict between the island's Greek and Turkish communities. To that end, the commission holds out the offer of additional funds for the northern part of Cyprus.
Turkey, the 13th candidate country, has not yet begun formal negotiations with the EU and emerges as the only significant loser in the report. The EU's June summit in Seville concluded, however, that "new decisions" could be made in December on the next stage of Turkey's candidature.
The report praises Turkey's recent adoption of a constitutional-reform package abolishing the death penalty in peacetime and granting minorities certain broadcast and educational rights. Nonetheless, the commission says, Turkey does not fulfill the political Copenhagen criteria and cannot at this stage be offered a date for starting accession negotiations.
The report says Turkey's reforms still contain limitations on full fundamental rights and freedoms and need further administrative measures before they can be implemented.
Zervakis of Bonn University's ZEI think tank put the issue in perspective. "So far, Turkey has just fulfilled the very first condition, [namely] to change a few national laws regarding the death penalty, and [what you might call cultural measures] in that they give the Kurdish minority a way to express themselves via media and so on," Zervakis said.
As a sweetener, Turkey is to see the doubling of its annual 175 million euros ($172 million) in aid money by 2006, although the increases will be linked to performance in meeting the EU's demands.
Overall, the report hints at certain concerns with respect to public opinion in the current member states. The document notes it is important to "increase the awareness and knowledge" the EU public has of the new members, saying the present member states need to do more to explain the benefits of an enlarged EU in terms of increased political stability and the prospect of sustained economic growth.
Finally, the commission report affirms that enlargement is an "inclusive process which is not yet completed with the first accessions." It offers the EU's full support to those candidates that are not in a position to be part of the first wave and promises an "open attitude" toward the EU's new neighbors in the western Balkans, Eastern Europe, and the Mediterranean.