The European Commission today adopted its annual progress reports on candidate countries. The official reports confirm what earlier leaks indicated: The 10 front-runners are ready to close entry talks by the end of this year and join the bloc in 2004. However, Bulgaria and Romania have suffered a setback, as the commission only "takes note" of their entry target of 2007 instead of confirming the date as an "indicative" target adopted by the EU.
Brussels, 9 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Guenter Verheugen, the European Union's enlargement commissioner, went to great lengths before the European Parliament today to silence potential critics of the commission's recommendation that 10 candidate countries are ready to join the bloc in 2004.
Addressing internal doubts within the commission, which stretched its midday meeting today, Verheugen stressed that the recommendation is not a "political decision."
Verheugen said he is certain that there is "not a single problem" affecting the 10 front-runners -- Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia -- that cannot be resolved "by the end of 2003." "Naturally, our recommendation contains a certain element of prognostication. They do not bind the new member states to the obligation to meet conditions for membership today but at the point of accession, that is, we must now offer an assessment of something that is yet to be done or will not be done before the enlargement. This assessment is not based on a feeling or a caprice but on a firm knowledge of the tempo and quality of the preparation of these candidate countries," Verheugen said.
To back up his case, which Verheugen said must also very soon reach the EU's own citizens "to avoid unpleasant surprises," the commissioner put particular emphasis on stringent monitoring mechanisms that the EU will impose on the new members before and after accession.
Besides a "monitoring report" to be issued next July, the commission also recommended the inclusion of a two-year "safeguard clause" in the accession treaties to allow the commission to apply "quick and to-the-point" measures to rectify any possible "distortions" in the EU's internal market.
This "entirely new" measure is to apply to the internal market in what Verheugen called "its widest sense," meaning to all trans-border activity, not merely trade.
In a nod to the sensibilities of the candidates, Verheugen noted that this is not deemed necessary because the present EU views the new accessions as a risk, but because enlargement on the present scale is unprecedented and potential difficulties cannot be predicted.
In a major departure from the texts leaked by various commission officials since 4 October, the commission has significantly weakened its wording on Bulgaria and Romania, neither of which is included in the first wave.
Instead of committing the EU to the year 2007 as a proposed "target date" for their entry into the EU, the commission's report now merely "takes note" that 2007 is the year in which the two countries hope to accede.
Verheugen today appeared to distance himself from the optimism evident in the earlier leaked version of the progress reports. "It is not our decision that Bulgaria and Romania will not be part of the first wave of enlargement. It is their own decision. They have said that they want to accede in 2007, and all the commitments assumed by them are linked to that date, not 2004," Verheugen said.
As predicted, Turkey failed to extract a date from the European Commission for the launching of its own entry talks. Verheugen today praised the country's recent constitutional reforms abolishing the death penalty and granting its minorities wider cultural rights but noted tellingly that "in the last 18 months, Turkey has made more progress in the field of democracy and human rights than in the preceding 50 years."
He added: "It was not to be expected that Turkey, in these 18 months, would meet with all the political conditions for entry. In saying this, it is no criticism that [Turkey] has not complied with all the political conditions. On the contrary, I consider it amazing how much they have achieved in a short period."
Verheugen said the EU would continue "encouraging" Turkey's efforts, but added that a discussion of dates at this stage is "unproductive."
The European Commission also appears to have hardened its stance on Cyprus. Romano Prodi, the commission president, said in his speech to the European Parliament that, although the EU's 1999 Helsinki summit set no preconditions for Cyprus's entry, the commission wants the island to join "as a single entity." This means, Prodi said, that the EU expects a solution to the conflict between the island's Greek and Turkish communities by the end of the year.
Commissioner Verheugen today also issued a few appeals. First, he called on Irish voters to accept the Nice treaty at their 19 October referendum, saying that the "European future" of the applicant countries depends on a positive decision.
Verheugen also said he is "a little concerned" about the inability of the current EU member states to agree on a financial package for enlargement, without which negotiations cannot be closed. He said he wants the EU to agree on a compromise at the Brussels summit on 24-25 October.