Prague, 27 October 1997 (RFE/RL) - A two-day meeting of European Union foreign ministers has made only limited progress in reaching consensus on how to go about opening membership talks early next year with Cyprus and 10 candidate states from Central and Eastern Europe.
With a mid-December summit meeting due to make the final decision, that means the 15-nation EU now has less than seven weeks to resolve differences over how to proceed with its promised expansion.
For their first collective talks on enlargement, the ministers met over the weekend in the spa resort of Mondorf-les-Bains in Luxembourg, the current EU president. They differed not only over the key issue of how many Eastern candidate states to invite initially to the bargaining table. They also couldn't entirely agree on how to placate uninvited candidates. And they were odds as well over how to handle Turkey's persistent appeals for membership, which could affect Cyprus' candidacy.
Twelve of the 15 members agreed with the EU Executive Commission's July recommendation for staged expansion talks. In its "Agenda 2000" document, the Commission had suggested that five Eastern nations --the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Poland and Slovenia-- join Cyprus in the first wave of negotiations. The Commission judged that four of the other five Eastern candidates --Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania and Romania-- were still not advanced enough economically to join the first wave. It excluded Slovakia, the 10th candidate, because of what it deemed Bratislava's poor human-rights record and flawed democratic institutions
But three EU members --Denmark, Greece and Sweden-- persisted in defending simultaneous membership talks with all 11 candidates. Under what the three call the "regatta" approach, all applicant countries would start talks at the same time, with each proceeding at is own pace. Danish Foreign Minister Niels Helveg Petersen, the most vocal of the group, called for a more inclusive approach that would neither humiliate the five countries left out nor damage them economically by discouraging foreign investment. Petersen said the Commission's proposal was "not good enough both in psychological and in real terms."
Can these long-standing differences be bridged in time for the mid-December EU summit that is due to issue formal invitations to applicant nations? According to Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jacques Poos, there was discussion of compromise formulas at Mondorf. He said he was confident an agreement would be reached. "We imagined," Poos said, "some intermediate ways between the Commission's proposal and the proposal to start negotiations with all the candidates."
The most likely solution to the quarrel over whom to invite is an idea, first put forward by France earlier this year, for a standing "European Conference." This would bring together leaders of all West and East European countries for summit meetings once or twice a year. At the same time, their ministers would meet more frequently to discuss cooperation on issues such as crime, drugs and immigration. In addition to participating in the standing conference, all 11 candidate states would also share the $63 billion the EU will make available for applicants between the years 2000 and 2006.
The EU remains divided, however, on whether to invite Turkey to the proposed standing conference, which would be inaugurated in February during Britain's coming EU presidency. At Mondorf, Greece led the attack on Britain's stated plan to invite Turkey to the meeting. Athens is particularly upset by a campaign recently launched in the U.S. by the Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash to boycott Washington-mediated talks on a Cyprus settlement if the Greek Cypriot application to join the EU goes ahead. Other EU members, notably Italy and Germany, reiterated their strong opposition to allowing Turkey to enter the EU before Ankara substantially improved its human-rights record.
Britain's minister for European affairs, Douglas Henderson, admitted that the question of "Turkey was not resolved" over the weekend. He said the EU "must persuade Greece that there is a new situation, that (it) has to modernize its relations with Turkey. And," Henderson added, "Turkey needs to make reforms."
So, in addition to all its other expansion headaches --who to invite, how to finance enlargement and agree on needed internal reforms-- the EU now has an overt Turkey-Cyprus problem. It is not a good omen for a swift opening of talks with candidate nations or for a smooth negotiation process that some analysts now say could take longer than the seven years needed to admit Spain and Portugal in the 1980s.