It's official: The European Union is at last poised to carry out its enlargement eastward into Central and Eastern Europe. The union's summit meeting in Copenhagen last week issued formal invitations to 10 countries to join in 2004. The historic moment comes at the end of a year of often tense negotiations between the candidates and the European Commission. RFE/RL looks at the highlights of 2002 and at the prospects for the coming year.
Prague, 17 December 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The year now drawing to a close has been a historically important one in terms of the unification of Europe. It saw formal invitations issued to eight Central and Eastern European countries, stretching from the Baltics to the Balkans, to join the European Union. Malta and Cyprus were also invited.
The invitations, issued by EU leaders at their Copenhagen summit meeting on 12-13 December, brought to a culmination years of preparation and negotiation. Scheduled to start in 2004, the accessions mark the biggest enlargement undertaken by the EU.
Two weaker candidates, Bulgaria and Romania, were not given invitations on this occasion but were encouraged to pursue their applications, with prospective joining dates in 2007. The 13th candidate, Turkey, was offered negotiations starting in 2005 but only if it is considered to have met all of the so-called Copenhagen criteria, particularly relating to human rights.
The achievement of the summit was summed up by EU president Denmark's prime minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who issued a welcome to the newcomers. "To our new members, I say warmly, 'Welcome to our family.' Our new Europe is born," Rasmussen said.
The euphoria displayed by Slovak Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda was typical of the candidates, which had held on through years of preparation amid often gloomy predictions. "Slovakia's door to the European Union is now wide open. The European Union will connect what the 20th century had separated," Dzurinda said.
The path to membership for the 10 was not smooth in 2002. Disagreements over the financial terms offered by the European Commission continued until the last moment, even at the summit itself.
In the preceding years, the negotiations proceeded mostly without incident and with limited dialogue. The commission more or less simply recited to the candidates what they had to do to comply with Brussels' conditions. But when the EU terms for farm-sector financial support were published in January 2002, a revolt began, led by the biggest of the candidates, Poland.
These countries considered grossly inadequate the EU's offer to subsidize farmers, initially at but one-quarter of the rate received by present EU farmers. By November, in the face of persistent criticism, the European Commission improved its offer by several billion euros -- a rare gesture. The dissenters held out for even more and, in the end, after a final grueling round of haggling, they achieved another modest increase in the amount offered by the EU.
The 10 countries -- Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia -- are expected to sign accession treaties by spring of next year and join the bloc in May 2004.
The process is still far from concluded. The enlargement decision is still subject to endorsement by the parliaments of the 15 current EU member states. That should largely be a rubber-stamp affair, but surprises can never be ruled out. For instance, in a referendum in 2001, Irish voters unexpectedly rejected the Nice treaty, the document that outlines the reform of EU institutions to make room for enlargement. That rejection threatened to halt the entire enlargement. The danger was only averted when the Irish people endorsed the treaty in a second, special referendum held in October.
A more dangerous hurdle facing the enlargement process is the referenda on joining the EU that the candidates will hold next year. Since large sections of the populations in the candidate countries have always been opposed to joining, and many more fall into the "undecided" category, the success of the referenda is not a foregone conclusion.
Poland presents a particular danger. Surveys show popular resentment against the entry terms imposed by the EU. As senior Polish analyst Alexander Smolar recently remarked to RFE/RL, "There is a lot of anxiety and fear, and the anxiety and fear concerning European Union enlargement is one of the elements of the larger picture, which is not very positive at present. This might be [just] a transitional phenomenon, provided there is an upturn in the [country's] economic situation," Smolar said.
The year 2002 could also be called Turkey's year, at least in relation to the EU. Despite a change of government in November, that country conducted a skillful lobbying campaign for membership, securing the open support of the United States for its bid. In the end, Ankara was given a promise of negotiations with the EU in 2005, if it meets certain conditions in a review in December 2004.
The Turks initially took this deferral to be a defeat, but British Prime Minister Tony Blair highlighted the positive side, saying: "It's the first time a firm date has really been given for Turkey, and it's important to emphasize that it's not a question of whether negotiations are open with Turkey. If they pass the criteria, they [negotiations] will be open with Turkey, and I think that's a very important step forward."
Unless there is a settlement between the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities before 2004, the Mediterranean island of Cyprus will be entering the EU in its present divided state. That probably means that only the Greek-speaking part of the island will be integrated into EU structures.
Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash has taken a skeptical view of the EU's ultimate intentions, toward both Turkey and Turkish Cypriots. In comments in Ankara, he said, "I believe that the European Union's interest is to delay Turkey's accession to the EU and to have Cyprus, to take possession of Cyprus, and to build something like a Christian fortress around Turkey."
The EU ended the year with a plan from the Danish presidency called the New Neighbors Initiative, with a special focus on Ukraine, Moldova, and Belarus.
Danish Foreign Minister Per Stig Moeller said in Copenhagen that, without ignoring any of its other neighboring states, the EU needs to strengthen its relations with these three countries so "we don't get problems in our own neighborhood."
He also said: "We have to help them stabilize their economies, help them develop or stabilize their democracies. We have to have different plans with them because they are very different. Moldova, Ukraine, and Belarus -- their situations are very, very different. That means we have to have specific strategies for each of the countries."
Danish Prime Minister Rasmussen also had an encouraging word at the Copenhagen summit for the countries that comprised the former Yugoslavia. He said Brussels seeks to strengthen the existing association-and-partnership process with these countries, sending them what he called "a very positive and clear signal" of continuing support.