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EU: Ethnic Minority Issues To Figure In Enlargement

Brussels, 17 March 1997 (RFE/RL) - The European Union's (EU) High Commissioner for National Minorities, Max van der Stoel, has been asked to help shape opinion about countries which have applied for EU membership.

RFE/RL's Brussels correspondent reports Van der Stoel was asked to participate in the opinion-forming process by his Dutch compatriot, Hans van den Broek, who is the EU commissioner responsible for relations with Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).

A European Commission statement released after last week's meeting recalls that the protection of ethnic minorities is one of the criteria on which countries will be judged, as to whether they are eligible for EU membership.

The EU Commission is now preparing its official opinions, covering all these criteria, for publication expected late this year.

Van den Broek -- the specialist on the East -- has now asked Van der Stoel -- the specialist on ethnic minorities -- to contribute to this process by providing an assessment of each country's level of protection for its national minorities.

The EU statement also points out that the EU gives extensive support to projects in the field of minority issues through its aid program know as PHARE. Recently, for instance, grants have been made to help Estonian- and Latvian-language training, designed mainly for ethnic Russians in each of these countries.

The Van den Broek-Van der Stoel meeting follows a gathering of EU Foreign Ministers, who agreed in principle to plan for a standing conference, including all candidate states for Union membership.

European Commission President Jacques Santer said the conference would reassure candidates for membership that they have not been excluded from the Union, even if they are not in the first wave of states to begin immediate entry talks.

Dutch Foreign Minister Hans van Mierlo, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency, said the conference would assure candidates that they all "have a right to join the EU, whether that ... takes place in the short, medium, or long-term future." He said the plan for the standing conference is now only a loose concept whose details and dates must be determined.

Ethnic minorities specialist Van den Broek today visits Sofia at the end of a tour of prospective EU member countries.