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Central Europe: When Will Central Europe Join The EU?

Prague, 29 October 1996 (RFE/RL) -- How quickly can Central European candidate nations expect to become full members of the European Union?

There is no simple or single answer to that question, a critical one for the reforming states already in close association with the EU --Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovenia and Slovakia.

They all have been promised the start of membership negotiations by late next year. But they have been given no firm assurances when those negotiations might end. Nor can any be given, except that the complexity of the membership talks, covering all areas from trade to foreign policy, make it likely that they will be long rather than short, difficult rather than easy.

When Central European officials pose the question to the leaders of Germany and of France, the EU's traditional bilateral "motor" of change, they get quite optimistic responses. Chancellor Helmut Kohl has for long publicly suggested that the year 2000 was suitable for the entry of the first Central European countries into the EU.

Last month in Warsaw, President Jacques Chirac avoided any suggestions: He simply declared flat out that Poland, and probably some of its neighbors as well, could enter the Union by 2000. Privately, Chirac's aides indicated that early date would inevitably involve what they acknowledged was considerable "bending" of the EU's membership rules.

But when Central Europeans turn to the EU officials with whom they work day in and day out on the gritty details of their admission qualifications, they get very different, far less optimistic answers. Hans van der Broek, the EU Commissioner in charge of enlargement, went to Warsaw last week. He told Poles, politely but firmly, that when Kohl and Chirac "speak about 2000, they are thinking about negotiations being completed by 1998 or 1999. I think," said the blunt-spoken Commissioner, "that is over-ambitious."

Admission, Van der Broek said, will be possible only at a date when the EU is satisfied that all its conditions are fulfilled --in other words, no rule-bending. And the same day, the head of the EU's office in Hungary candidly called "an illusion" the idea of any Central European nation joining the EU before 2002 -- the usual date cited by top-level EU officials.

When Central European officials or inquiring journalists, ask lower-level EU technicians dealing with admission problems what their estimates are, the responses are even less optimistic. That was the experience of our correspondent, who in recent days spoke with a number of EU bureaucrats in Brussels and European Parliament officials in Strasbourg. Many of them cannot reasonably conceive of any Central European nation joining the Union much before 2005.

Typical of the such views were those expressed to RFE/RL by Sipke Brouwer, who heads the Central European division of the EU's Executive Commission in Brussels. Brouwer has spent more than two decades as a "Euro-crat," and is only one level below his fellow Dutchman Van der Broek, a political appointee (and former Dutch Foreign Minister) to whom he reports directly. But he is about three of four years away from his boss' public estimate. Brouwer says that "it would be very difficult" for any Central European nation to gain membership before 2005 or 2006.

Those years, Brouwer points out, are the last of a decade of an EU financing package of thousands of millions of dollars soon to be earmarked for the admission of at least 10 new member states in the next century. The financing, says Brouwer, is already known as "Santer Package One" -- named after the current president of the Commission, Jacques Santer. He suggests there could be, when all the Commission's estimates and sorting out is finished, subsequent packages in the future --"perhaps a Santer Two or Three."

Brouwer notes that the financial impact on the EU of adding more than 10 new member states has still not been calculated. He says it could take years even for the estimate to be properly done, and the earlier enlargement is begun the more costly it is likely to be for the Union's current member states.

Politicians who can't accept what Brouwer calls his "realism" will have to put their wallets -- that is, the wallets of their taxpayers -- where their mouths are. That could still happen, and Brouwer and other EU officials fervently hope so. But without such a collective political act involving enormous sums of money -- from a less-and-less unified and less-and-less rich EU -- talk of "2000" or "early entry" of Central European nations will remain mere rhetoric.