Prague, 10 July 1997 (RFE/RL) - It's crunch time at European Union headquarters in Brussels. After Monday's historic decision by NATO to begin accession talks with three Central European nations - the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland - the pressure is now squarely on the EU to make its difficult decisions on 10 Eastern candidate nations seeking early entry.
In fact, those decisions will not be taken before a mid-December EU summit in Luxembourg. But next Wednesday (July 16), the EU's Executive Commission has promised to reveal its long-awaited "Agenda 2000," a document of some 1,200 pages that should at least reflect the body's collective expertise on each of the candidates' eligibility.
The report will actually contain two important sections: the Commission's opinions on which of the 10 Eastern countries should begin membership talks early next year and, not less important, its views on the cost of enlargement to the EU's current 15 members. The 15 can eventually reject or modify the Commission's recommendations. But if they do they will send a message to their own increasingly EU-skeptical citizens that a political decision has overridden the Union's best expert advice.
Yet, only a week away from the deadline, the Commission still has not arrived at consensus on Agenda 2000. Evidence today's special meeting of the EU's executive arm. The meeting was hastily called to try to reconcile critical differences among the body's 20 commissioners over how many, and which, Central and East European candidate states should be invited to participate in a first wave of membership talks. Protectively, another full Commission meeting has been scheduled for Tuesday, only a day before Agenda 2000 is to be made public.
Evidence, too, the conflicting reports given to journalists this week by - always anonymous - Commission and other EU sources. Some of the reports said that the Commission was divided between members from the EU's larger states, such as Germany (population 80 million), and its smaller ones, such as Luxembourg (population 341,000), which currently holds the EU's revolving presidency. Others suggested the division was along rich-poor lines. According to these reports, prosperous members like Britain favor a big initial expansion. But less flourishing members like Greece insist on the smallest possible first wave because they fear the addition of many new members will deprive them of their present extensive EU funding.
If the Commission took decisions by majority vote, the big states would probably win out. That's because under current rules each of the EU's five largest members - Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Spain - has two commissioners, while the smaller members have only one. But the Commission, like the EU's Council of Ministers, actually takes important decisions by consensus - or, like the Ministers, it doesn't take them at all.
What these divisions translate into for Eastern candidate states are, essentially, two possible scenarios. One is for the Commission to agree to begin talks first with Cyprus and with only the same three Central European states selected by NATO. At the insistance of Greece, Cyprus is first on the EU membership list - if it can reach a political settlement between its mutually hostile Greek and Turkish communities before the end of the year. The Cyprus-plus-three scenario would certainly satisfy many of the EU's smaller members.
The other possibility is for the Commission to choose, in addition to Cyprus, either four or five Eastern nations for the first round. That would entail the probable selection of either Slovenia or Estonia, or both, plus the three Central European candidates. This scenario would satisfy most, but not all, of the EU's large member states. Germany, the Union's most populous member, has until now objected to selecting Estonia in the first round - apparently because Chancellor Helmut Kohl does not want to offend Russia by selecting a Baltic state for the first round. Still, as of today, the five- or six-nation scenario is considered more likely by most analysts.
Slovenia and Estonia are serious first-round candidates because their economic achievements since attaining independence pretty well match, and in some respects surpass, those of the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland. They are also both small countries that can adjust their legislation and rules to the EU's 3,000 laws and regulations more quickly than larger candidates like Poland. What's more, they don't have Poland's large agricultural community - nine million farmers and their families in a population of 38 million. That makes them easier to integrate into the EU's Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which currently eats up almost two-thirds of the Union's $100 billion budget in subsidies to its farmers.
Of course, the EU says officially it will reform the CAP and its funding of poorer member states - which absorbs another quarter of its budget - before it begins enlargement. Agenda 2000 will no doubt speak optimistically about such reforms. But the Union's failure to agree on basic institutional reforms at its Amsterdam summit last month, despite repeated official asurances it would succeed, have made many analysts wary of its ability to effect reforms that touch its voters' wallets far more directly. The analysts ask: How can the EU, which has shown itself unable to change the size of its Commission or its critical voting arrangements, possibly agree quickly on cutting back its indirect subsidies to farmers by 30 percent? That figure was cited this week as an Agenda 2000 target by a Commission official.
The analysts conclude that, because enlargement turns on the Union achieving all its needed basic reforms, there is little prospect of EU entry for any first-wave candidates until 2005 at the earliest. The same conclusion has also been drawn by many Central and East European officials after the Amsterdam summit failure. Analysts and officials alike agree that, unlike NATO, the European Union today is not capable of taking a historic decision. Such a decision requires a strong collective political will -just the quality that the increasingly dis-united EU lacks.