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EU: Commission Short List Sparks Approval, Protest

Prague, 16 July 1997 (RFE/RL) - The European Commission's short list of candidates for EU membership talks is sparking cries of approval and groans of protest from Central and Eastern European countries that want to join the trading block.

The European Commission, the EU's administrative branch, yesterday recommended paring down the list of ten Central and Eastern European would-be members to five countries it says are ready to begin membership with the Union next year. The five are Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Estonia and Slovenia.

Leaders in the five short-list countries immediately expressed their satisfaction with the commission's recommendation. Hungarian foreign ministry spokesman Gabor Horvath called it an indication that Budapest has satisfied criteria for joining the EU.

But some countries left off the commission's list were equally quick to express their disappointment. The Romanian government said in a statement yesterday that any enlargement of the EU in waves would be, in the statement's words, "artificial and discriminatory." The commission proposed leaving Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Latvia and Lithuania to await membership talks at a later, unspecified time.

The Eastern states' chorus of satisfaction and disappointment foreshadows months of last-minute lobbying by left-out states as the commission's recommendations now pass on to the other branches of the EU's government. EU Commission President Jacques Santer is due to present the recommendations to the European Parliament, the EU's legislature, in Strasbourg today. But no final policy will be made until the EU's executive branch, comprising the foreign ministers of its member states, meets in Luxembourg this December.

Still, the commission's proposals will carry substantial clout with the union's policy makers. The recommendations are part of a more than thousand-page study on how the union must restructure for enlargement. The study, entitled "Agenda 2000" is itself a daunting measure of the immense task the union faces just to take in half the East's would be new members.

As Santer presents the commission's short list to the Parliament today, he will accompany it with proposals to reform the EU budget, its farm spending, and its aid programs to poor regions, all reforms considered necessary if the EU is to expand successfully.

Santer is also expected to call today for a new EU intergovernmental conference after the year 2000 to restructure the union's decision making procedures to accommodate more members. That same subject threatened to deadlock the EU's Amsterdam summit last month until leaders agreed to postpone the toughest decisions on institutional reform to a later time.

If the EU ultimately accepts the commission's recommendation to limit the first wave of membership talks to the five eastern countries plus Cyprus, the union could expand in a few years from a common market of 370 million people to nearly 500 million. But that expansion would increase the combined gross domestic product of EU members by just 5 percent.

Such economic realities could be a strong discouragement for expanding the union more rapidly eastward than the commission proposes. The EU has little interest in spending taxpayers money to subsidize inefficient economies, since the union's four poorest members - Ireland, Spain, Portugal, and Greece - already consume a large portion of the EU's budget.

But EU leaders could yet surprise Eastern countries by electing to include more than five of them in hopes of building European stability. In one sign of possible disagreement with the commission's proposal, Danish Foreign Minister Niels Helveg Petersen said yesterday his government still wants entry talks with all East European candidates to begin at the same time.