Strasbourg, 16 July 1997 (RFE/RL) - After months of study and political debate, the European Commission called today for opening negotiations to admit five Central and East European countries: Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Estonia and Slovenia. But, it turned back applications from five other countries, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Bulgaria, and in the harshest words of all, Slovakia.
Jacques Santer, Commission President, presented the decision to the European Parliament today in Strasbourg in a report titled: "Agenda 2000." The Commission blueprint totaled an overwhelming 1350 pages. Amid the turgid, bureaucratic prose, it laid out an ambitious program to streamline unwieldy European institutions and expensive subsidy programs - and showed just how difficult it will be for even the most
praised new Eastern applicants to join.
"I am not among those who believe the European Union can increase its members without any risk for its political project," Santer told the parliament. "We know from experience that increased numbers complicates and slows down decision-making."
Not surprisingly, the plan provoked a fierce debate. Both the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats, holding a parliamentary majority, said negotiations should have been opened simultaneously for all ten countries. "You are setting up a guillotine," complained Claudio Azzolini, President of the People's Party, Christian Democratic grouping. "You are punishing the five rejected countries, cutting them off from the rest of Europe."
Although parliament cannot veto outright the Commission decision, it can slow down the process by lobbying national leaders. These leaders must take a formal decision in December, and if anything, they look likely to be even less generous. Luxembourg's Prime Minister Jean-Claude Junker, whose country holds the six-month European presidency, has told parliamentarians that he would have preferred only opening negotiations with three countries: Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary, the same three that recently were invited to begin negotiations on joining NATO.
But NATO's decision to restrict its initial wave of invitations increased the pressure to include some of the disappointed countries. The Scandinavian members pushed hard for Estonia, and the southern countries lobbied for Slovenia. Even among these "winners," the Commission identified serious obstacles to their entry.
Poland, for example, received surprisingly severe criticism for its slowness in liberalizing bank-and-financial services, and privatization and trade protection. Other countries, such as Estonia, were blasted for insufficient land reform, Hungary for its price controls on energy, and the Czech Republic for insufficient environmental controls and investment.
Among all the rejected applicants, Slovakia was singled out for failing to meet the membership's political criteria. "The government does not sufficiently respect the powers devolved by the constitution to the other bodies, and it too often disregards the rights of the opposition," the Commission wrote.