London, 6 January 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Britain has opened its six-month presidency of the EU with a pledge to inject dynamism into the talks on enlargement to include the Central and East Europeans.
Writing in the Polish newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza, Foreign Secretary Robin Cook said the EU will be unavoidably preoccupied in the months ahead with economic and monetary union and plans to introduce a common currency, regarded as the most important economic policy decision in Europe since World War Two.
But Cook implied that these issues must not overshadow the historic talks, starting in a few weeks, to enlarge the 15-nation EU. He said: "We must ensure that the process of expansion will be on the right track from Day One and take on real dynamic."
One of Britain's key tasks is to implement accords reached at last month's Luxembourg summit when EU leaders backed the European Commission's recommendation that five central Europeans, plus Cyprus, were ready to open negotiations to enter the union.
The so-called "fast track" five are the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Poland and Slovenia. The formal launch of accession talks with these countries is set for March 30.
Britain will also have to smooth the feelings of the "slow track" countries which are also to be offered "accession partnerships", but are not yet considered ready for full membership talks: Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania and Slovakia.
All 10 applicant countries have been invited to London in early March for a new "pan-European conference", intended as the first of an annual general discussion of European problems. It will be followed by the Edinburgh summit of EU foreign ministers (March 14-15) at which enlargement is expected to top the agenda.
In his Gazeta Wyborcza article, Cook pointed out that Britain has advocated the eastward expansion of the EU from the outset, and added: "We are striving toward an EU consisting of 25 to 30 members." He said the enlargement process aims to put an end to the "50 years of the artificial division of the continent".
Cook did not give any timetable for the accession of new members, a process that, critics say, could take up to 20 years, with applicants being accepted on a staggered basis, and forced to accept long transition periods to full membership.
To qualify for EU membership, candidates must show they can meet EU standards on the single market, environment, competition policy, health and safety and public administration. Passing laws is not good enough: they must be able to enforce their own rules.
Analysts say that Britain, as chairman, will have to contain pressures within the EU for a delay in enlargement. One argument against enlargement is that the EU will add 28 percent to its population, but only four percent to its gross domestic product (in terms of purchasing power parity) if all 10 applicants join up.
Writing in the Financial Times, Lionel Barber said: "All 15 EU members know that the club's planned expansion threatens their rights and privileges. The big fear, especially in the south, is that financial transfers will be diverted to pay for eastern newcomers."
The European Commission claims that enlargement can be funded without any real increase in the EU budget.
But Spain, Portugal and Greece say the cash needed to support eastwards expansion must not come from their own aid programs supplied from the EU's structural and cohesion funds.
Another problem is the insistence of Romania and Bulgaria that they not be lumped with Turkey at the end of the queue.
Despite Cook's insistence that enlargement will be a major theme of the British presidency, the reality is that the EU's priorities over the next six months will be dictated by its own long-standing agenda. The most important event will be a EU summit in May to decide which countries will be in at the start of the single currency -- to be launched on January 1, 1999. This is seen as the most far-reaching change in the international monetary order for decades.
The 15 heads of state and government at the May summit are expected to decide that 11 countries meet the qualifying criteria to be founder members of EMU -- with Greece as a non-qualifier, and the UK, Sweden and Denmark opting out, at least for now.
Ironically, despite Britain's non-participation, it will fall on Prime Minister Tony Blair, in his capacity as chairman of the European Council, to announce the historic EMU decision, probably on May 2. That is likely to be the single most important event of the next six months -- whatever the rhetoric about enlargement.