Prague, 26 March 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The European Union begins its expansion process early next week with two days of high-level meetings in Brussels.
On Monday (Mar. 30), foreign ministers from the 15 EU member states will meet with their counterparts from the 10 Central and East Eastern candidate states, plus Cyprus. The day's proceedings will begin with what the EU calls the formal launching of the accession process -- a series of short statements by all 26 participants and high Union officials. At the same time, there will be a separate meeting of trade officials.
When Monday morning's trade meeting is concluded, a third meeting will get underway, this one concerned with the EU's single, internal market. The entire day is scheduled to end with a press conference by Foreign Secretary Robin Cook of Britain, which currently holds the revolving EU presidency.
On Tuesday (Mar. 31), the EU ministers will be present for six separate opening sessions of substantive membership negotiations. Cyprus, whose candidacy preceded all the others, will be the first to open accession talks in a planned 45 minute ceremonial meeting. Then the five Eastern candidates the EU has chosen to begin substantive talks -- Hungary, Poland, Estonia, the Czech Republic and Slovenia (in that order) -- will have their 45-minute-long ceremonies. A separate, day-long meeting on agricultural affairs will be held with the six candidates together.
The other five Eastern candidates -- Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania and Slovakia -- must wait in the wings until the EU decides, based on its monitoring process, that they are ready for substantive talks. For the time being, four of the five are being excluded because they are deemed not sufficiently advanced economically. Slovakia is out because it is judged not to have met the EU's democratic standards.
Continuing Greek-Turkish controversy over the island of Cyprus, which has been divided between the two countries for almost a quarter-of-a-century, is one factor that could affect the course of substantive negotiations with all six candidates.
The leadership of the ethnic Turkish northern third of the island, recognized as a national entity only by mainland Turkey, has refused EU invitations to take part in membership negotiations, which will be attended only by Nicosia's ethnic Greek government. Turkey, a perennial EU aspirant, is angry that its candidacy was rejected late last year at a Union summit, and has warned against conducting talks only with Greek Cypriots. EU member Greece, for its part, has threatened to veto negotiations with Eastern candidates if the talks with Nicosia do not go forward. The other 14 EU members reiterated in December that they would go on.
In any case, most analysts believe that next week's start of expansion talks is only the beginning of a protracted process that will likely take several years -- and perhaps even more -- to conclude. The more skeptical among them say that it could take a decade or longer for Central and East European nations to gain full membership privileges in the EU, although some could be admitted earlier as partial members for long transitional periods. They note that it has already taken more than eight years after the collapse of European communism for the EU to begin the accession process for Eastern states.
EU officials acknowledge that the negotiations with the Eastern candidates will be lengthy. But they say that's because meeting Brussels' criteria is a complicated, arduous task that requires profound changes in Eastern economies, which will take years to bring about. The officials cite some 3,000 EU regulations the candidate states must be ready to meet, and ask: Is it any wonder it will take so long?