Prague, 25 November 1996 (RFE/RL) - Meeting in Brussels today, European Union (EU) foreign ministers were due to examine the diminishing chances of two Mediterranean island states -- Malta and Cyprus -- to obtain early membership in the 15-nation group.
Their discussions are part of what analysts now see as a growing shift in EU attention away from the Union's southern flank to the 10 candidate states from Central and Eastern Europe -- Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia.
As recently as three months ago it was widely assumed that, in preparing its future enlargement, the EU would deal first with Malta and Cyprus' applications. Greece, an EU member state, had 18 months years ago secured a promise from its partners that the two small nations would be the first candidates to be considered after the Union completed its current Inter-Governmental Conference (IGC).
The IGC is reviewing and considering reforms of the EU's own institutions, and is now expected to end by the middle of next year. EU officials and spokesmen have repeatedly said they "hoped" negotiations with the two would begin six months after the IGC concluded.
Today, that scenario seems highly unlikely. After elections in Malta last month, the newly-elected Labor Government announced that, as it had pledged during the campaign, it would restore the tiny nation's (population: 380,000) "traditional neutrality." That meant, it said, withdrawing not only its application for EU membership, but also ending its ties with NATO through the alliance's Partnership for Peace program.
Today, Malta's new deputy prime minister, George Wella, is meeting with the EU foreign ministers to explain fully his government's position. Some EU officials were hoping Malta would only put its membership "on hold" rather than withdraw entirely. But in either case, Malta's entry into the EU is today clearly far from imminent.
The same is true of Cyprus, but for more complicated reasons. That island (population: 670,000) remains divided between hostile Greek and Turkish communities, with no political accord in sight. Until there is one, many analysts believe, EU membership for Cyprus is in limbo as well. Greece and Turkey, NATO allies but long-time Mediterranean adversaries have, if anything, intensified their mutual hostility in the past year. At least as important, the EU's relations with Turkey -- also on the foreign ministers' agenda for discussion today -- have considerably worsened in the past several months.
A year ago, the EU signed a Customs Union accord with Turkey long sought by Ankara -- but only after its government had promised to improve its human-rights record. The agreement would have provided Turkey with some $500 million in direct aid over five years, but not a cent has yet be handed over.
First, Greece vetoed any EU disbursement this year after a mini-crisis in the Aegean Sea almost led to open hostilities between the two countries. Then, two months ago, the EU's Parliament froze all the money due to Turkey. The European Parliament said it "deplored" continuing human-rights violations on the Turkish mainland and was "appalled" at the killings early in September of two unarmed Greek Cypriots by Turkish soldiers on the island.
The Parliament's strong language was echoed three weeks later by the EU's Executive Commission, which told Turkey that it had to improve human rights if it wanted better relations with the Union. It said that "decisive and speedy action (was needed to give) tangible proof of Turkey's willingness to take steps toward closer ties with the EU."
No such action has been undertaken by Turkey's current Islamic-led government. Instead, Ankara has attacked the EU's stand and even suggested it might block the expansion to the East of NATO in retribution. With both sides stiffening their positions, Cypriot EU membership now seems a far-off prospect.
That leaves the 10 Central and East European candidate states more or less first in line for early membership consideration. Adding to their chances is the increasingly strong pressure being put on the EU by the United States to speed up its enlargement to the East. Washington would especially like the three Baltic states to join the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and perhaps Slovenia in the "first wave" of Eastern states to join the EU. (Estonia is considered to have the most advanced economy of the three Baltic states, and therefore the best chances.)
Still, Eastern candidate states should not get their hopes for quick entry up too high. Senior EU officials have consistently spoken of the year 2002 as the earliest possible enlargement date. And on Saturday, after the Commission reviewed its plans for the opening of expansion negotiations, a spokesman for President Jacques Santer made clear once again there would be no admission by bloc, but only by individual states that meet stiff EU standards.
One EU official summed it up this way: "Everyone may start the race at the same time. But applicants will only pass the finish line when they are clearly ready -- economically as well as politically -- for the responsibilities of membership."
In other words, the finish line could be a long way off.