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EU: Trouble May Loom In Expansion Process

  • Breffni O'Rourke

Leading European Union officials are signaling that there are serious problems with the eastern enlargement process. With only a week to go before the Copenhagen summit, which is supposed to finalize the process, wide differences remain over entry terms. In this brinksmanship, who will give way first?

Prague, 5 December 2002 (RFE/RL) -- European Commission President Romano Prodi calls it "thin ice." He's referring to a possible breakdown of the European Union's eastward expansion project.

There's only a week to go to the EU's Copenhagen summit, at which invitations for membership are to be issued to 10 candidate countries. But there are still wide differences between the commission and some candidates on the financial terms of entry.

More accurately, most of the trouble is between the European Commission and the biggest candidate country, Poland, which is seeking more money for its farmers.

Prodi told the European Parliament that too many points are unresolved, with only days remaining for negotiations. The process is moving onto thin ice, he said.

Another official, Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen of EU president Denmark, said that if demands are too high, enlargement could be postponed for years. And he said those candidates willing to accept the terms offered should not be made to wait for those that are not prepared.

These are veiled warnings to Poland and other dissenters: Be careful, or you may be left out of the first wave of entry in 2004.

Are these threats serious? The head of the Stefan Battory Foundation in Warsaw, Alexander Smolar, sees them as part of the normal "psychological warfare" of the negotiation process. But, he says, the problem is real enough. "The position formulated by the European Union and questioned even as too liberal by [French President Jacques] Chirac and [German Chancellor Gerhard] Schroeder is not very generous in comparison with previous European Union enlargements, and it creates real problems, especially in Poland, the country which is the biggest and most complex of the candidate states. So, apart for the declarations of Prodi and others, there is the real problem on the side of the candidate countries," Smolar said.

Smolar said the Polish government's dilemma is that it must win approval for EU membership in a referendum, and that won't be easy. "Public-opinion surveys indicate that a large majority of Poles are in favor of entering the European Union but also that a large majority consider the conditions which are proposed to be totally unsatisfactory," Smolar said.

He said that anti-European political groups have been intensely active in Poland, and their activities could well influence the outcome of the referendum.

Another senior analyst, Heather Grabbe of the Centre for European Reform in London, agrees with that assessment. She said: "The Polish government is under pressure from the domestic lobby, both in the Sejm and in public opinion. There is a lot of unhappiness at the way the deal has been negotiated. Basically, the inequity of the situation that French farmers will get four times as much in subsidies as Polish farmers, and the government is constrained on the EU side because the EU is just not going to give them anything more. This is the deal which has been done between the 15 [member states], and it cannot be unraveled."

Grabbe said this strategy of negativism is wrong on both sides and that, instead, the image they should project is one of optimism. "Both sides should be talking up the deal, and they should be explaining to the Polish people why it's actually very good for Poland to join the European Union and why in fact Poland will get a lot of money. But the way it is being presented by the EU makes it look as though it is a very ungenerous deal and one which the Polish farmers cannot accept," Grabbe said.

In fact, there are some grounds to call the offer less than generous. None other than the EU's enlargement commissioner, Guenter Verheugen, noted in a speech to the European Parliament that the proposal on the table from the Danish presidency is 2 billion euros ($2 billion) less than the cost of the enlargement proposal that was envisaged by EU leaders at the Berlin summit in 1999.

Verheugen said the candidate countries have a "very good argument" and can ask why is it not possible to make the same resources available today that were proposed at that time -- and for an enlargement envisaged as composed of only six countries, not 10, as now.

Despite the bickering, the European Commission and the Danish presidency still hope to arrive at an accord at a meeting of foreign ministers in Brussels on 9-10 December, ahead of the summit in Copenhagen, which starts on 12 December.