The European Union has had a difficult year, with sharp disagreements among members and candidates over the Iraq war and over the composition of a new constitution for the enlarged union. However, this week's release of the annual reports on the progress of the accession countries has enlivened the enlargement process and provided an opportunity to look ahead.
Prague, 7 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- This week marked the beginning of the end of the long process of enlarging the European Union into Central and Eastern Europe. The European Commission issued its final progress reports on the 10 most advanced candidate countries, giving them the green light to join the union on 1 May.
Although critical of many shortcomings in preparations by the 10, the commission praised the candidates for achieving a high degree of compatibility with the myriad rules of the EU's "acquis communautaire."
After presenting the reports on 5 November, EU Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen said, "I would like to pay a big compliment to the governments, the parliaments, and the people in the accession countries. They have managed a great achievement in adopting the European Union's complicated body of common rules in so short a time."
In turn, the candidates pledged to use the remaining six months to speed up their preparations. For instance Poland, the country with the most problems, was due to hold a special cabinet meeting at which, according to a spokesman, President Aleksander Kwasniewski, would "call for greater mobilization, focus and reliability" by the government in preparing for EU entry.
Other countries made similar pledges, while some leaders, like Lithuanian President Rolandas Paksas, took a more philosophical line: "We are going towards the membership in the European Union with a clear vision of Lithuania as an active and responsible member of the European family. Our goal is to create a democratic state, and this is enshrined in the strategy for the country's development approved by the parliament. External and internal security of the state and the well-being of the citizens are the cornerstones of our membership in the EU."
Beyond the 10 top candidates, Romania, Bulgaria, and Turkey also received reports on their progress toward membership at a later date, which set new goals for those countries to aim for. Romanian Prime Minister Adrian Nastase said, "In today's report on Romania, the European Commission considers that the target of Romania's accession to the EU in 2007 is realistic. Romania is seen as a serious and credible partner. I want to say in a strong way that Romania will continue to prepare itself with the same seriousness and with the same conscientiousness as before. We intend to set up a program which will include the EC recommendations."
The issuing of the progress reports in Brussels creates something of a festive atmosphere in the EU capital, as officials compare their countries' various assessments.
This year, they provided a welcome break in the tension produced by disagreements over the EU's new constitution. Poland and Spain are holding out for the same voting weight in the new constitution as provided to them in the Nice Treaty of 2000. Germany and France want the voting weights to correspond more closely to population size, and Warsaw in particular has come under heavy criticism for its uncompromising stand.
Nevertheless, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder used the moment of relief provided by the reports to put the accession countries at the center of the EU's attentions. In a speech in Berlin, he said the next budget -- from 2007 to 2011 -- must be dedicated to the new members. He called for the thousands of millions of euros in structural funding to be switched from the present recipients to the poorer newcomers.
Structural funds, which make up about one-third of the EU's budget -- or some 34 billion euros ($39.1 billion) -- are designed to help poorer countries catch up with the mainstream. Current recipients are Spain, Portugal, Greece, and Ireland.
At the same time, Schroeder referred pointedly to the row with Spain and Poland, warning again that anyone trying to delay agreement on the constitution risks losing financial aid as punishment.
The annual progress reports this week also provided the European Commission with an invaluable opportunity to bring movement to a key diplomatic problem -- namely, the continuing division of Cyprus.
Enlargement Commissioner Verheugen said Turkey could not expect to join the union while Cyprus remains divided into ethnic Greek and Turkish zones, with Ankara's troops in the northern Turkish sector:
"Nobody in Europe could imagine a situation where we would start negotiations with Turkey when the conflict in Cyprus is not resolved. It's not a condition and I've told the Turkish foreign minister in a telephone conversation [that] we're not creating new conditions, but we're simply stating the fact," Verheugen said.
Immediately after the report was issued, Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul said his country will move to resolve the problem before Cyprus joins the union.
"There is no doubt that we all want the Cyprus issue to be resolved. We will try hard to resolve it before 1 May 2004. Reconciliation is the culture of the European Union. For a reconciliation, both sides having problems should negotiate. In that sense, the Northern Republic of Cyprus and the Greek Republic should both try hard for reconciliation. One should not expect reconciliation only from the Northern Republic of Cyprus," Gul said.
The long-serving leader of the Turkish-Cypriot community, Rauf Denktash, has been blamed by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan for stalling UN-mediated talks early this year, and Ankara is expected to put pressure on him. Denktash himself called on the EU to be constructive in the search for solutions.
"If they [the European Union] really want a solution, and if they really want to accept Turkey, then they will think of a new formula. They will at least consult with us in order to seek a new way to it. That is what I think," Denktash said.
The occasion of the reports also served as an opportunity for Commission President Romano Prodi to ponder future waves of EU enlargement. In comments to the European Parliament, Prodi said the union must begin preparing itself to grow still further to more than 30 members. He specifically mentioned Croatia, which has already filed its application, and he said Croatia's neighbors could be expected to join the queue.
Prodi said the EU must be able to encourage these countries to persevere in their aims.