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Europe: Six Nations Begin Enlargement Talks

Brussels, 31 March 1998 (RFE/RL) -- After yesterday's ceremonial opening of what the European Union calls its expansion process, the EU will get down to the real business of enlargement today when it opens negotiation talks with six of the 11 nations it has made candidates for membership.

The six are Cyprus, and five of the Central and East European state the EU considers currently eligible to undertake negotiation talks; the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Poland, and Slovenia. The other five -- Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania and Slovakia -- will have to wait in the wings, perhaps for years, until the EU's "screening" process finds some or all of them are ready for substantive talks.

All 11 nations were present yesterday for the two-and-a-half hour ceremony that launched the process in Brussels. It was an occasion for high rhetoric and self-congratulation by EU foreign ministers, notably by Foreign Secretary Robin Cook of Britain, whose nation currently holds the EU's six-month revolving presidency.

Cook called the morning meeting a "milestone" for the EU, without a word of reminder that it had taken more than eight years after the collapse of european communism for the union to reach this point.

EU Comissioner for Central and Eastern Europe, Hans Van den Broek, was more down to earth in his remarks. The former Dutch foreign affairs minister told all the candidates that "they had come a long way." But he emphasized that far more effort was needed particularly in reforming national public administrations and making governments more efficient and more answerable directly to their peoples. Van den Broek told the 11 candidates: "all of us still have a great deal to do together."

The foreign ministers from the 11 candidate states by and large contented themselves with benign and non-controversial remarks. Hardly one of them missed the opportunity to describe the day's import as "historic," and all of them avoided any suggestion of criticism of the EU's slowness in undertaking expansion five years after it had agreed in principle to do so at its 1983 Copenhagen summit.

The tone of today's 45 minute-long separate openings of substantive talks with each of the six nations that are currently eligible is likely to be similarly non-controversial. Cyprus, whose candidacy is longer than all five others, is due to lead off the six meetings (at 0930 Prague time). It will be followed by the five eastern candidates, in the following order, Hungary, Poland, Estonia, Czech Republic and Slovenia. In all, the speech-making rather than detailed negotiations will surely be the order of the day.

The real nitty-gritty of the talks will certainly not begin before Friday (April 3) when, behind closed doors, negotiations with some or all of the six nations will resume. Few doubt that they will be arduous and long -- years long for some, perhaps a decade or more for others. It is, moreover, not only the candidate states that must transform themselves in order to meet stiff EU entry criteria. It is also the union itself that must effect internal reforms not only to make enlargement a smoother process but to make it feasible at all.

For the candidate states, early EU entry will entail painful economic reforms, particularly in what economists call their "labor intensive" (that is, involving many workers) farming sectors. In Poland especially, but in Hungary and elsewhere, millions of small, outmoded farms need swift mechanization and streamlining, while food processing controls need to be made stricter and new jobs found for those who will quit tilling the land.

One Brussels-based economist says that these high-profile agricultural reforms will surely be difficult but, adds Paul Brenton of the Centre for European Policy Studies, "there are equally painful ones in heavy industry such as steel."

As for the EU's own well-known necessary reforms, they too are likely to be painful -- and protracted. So far, the 15-nation group has made little headway in bringing about any changes in its two-most costly programs -- its farming and regional support projects, which together eat up four-fifths of its annual budget. Last week, the EU Executive Commission spelled out its proposals for cutting back the two programs, a necessity if expansion is to proceed apace. But few believe the 15 will agree within the less than two years it has to do so.

The reasons, says analysts, lie in too many decisions within the EU today: rich versus poor, North versus South, big versus small countries. The advent of six, perhaps as many as 11, new members in the years to come could, according to some analysts, further complicate the EU's own internal reforms. But according to others, their arrival could just as easily be the catalyst for swift union internal overhauling. Even the experts admit that no one really knows for sure.