Brussels, 30 June 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Did you know that the five Central and East European candidate nations (plus Cyprus) that began membership negotiations with the European Union with great ceremony in Brussels three months ago will not actually begin substantive talks for at least another year? If the answer is "no," you are in very large company.
In Western Europe, few know that what amounts to a likely year-plus-some-months delay in the start of substantive negotiations is now inevitable. Only negotiators and bureaucrats dealing with the EU are aware of it in the five Eastern countries concerned --the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Poland and Slovenia. Nor do more than a small group of insiders in both East and West know the biggest reason for the delay --strong pressure from two of the most important of the EU's 15 current members, France and Germany.
The EU Executive Commission's top negotiator for the talks, Nikolaus van der Pas, confirms that what he diplomatically calls "some members" have told the Union they don't want real negotiations with the five-plus-one group to start before July 1, 1999. In a telephone interview from Brussels with RFE/RL, the head of the Commission's Enlargement Task Force said:
'Member states are saying, 'We wouldn't like to go into real negotiations until the whole of the 31 chapters (of all of the EU's rules and regulation) have been screened,' and that will only be done by the end of June next year....That's correct because we need (more time for) multilateral sessions in order to explain the 'acquis' (--some 80,000 pages of regulations). We need (time for) bilateral sessions with each of the candidates to see what their problems might be. That just simply cannot be done quickly."
Van der Pas won't cite the countries that have asked for the delay. But other EU officials (who request anonymity) say that the European Commission is dragging its feet by extending the so-called screening process. Once advertised as a matter of a few months, extended screening is now due to last at least 15 months, thereby putting off real negotiations by at least a year. They also say that French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl are chiefly responsible for the delay.
Chirac, in no hurry to see EU expansion begin, is said to have insisted that the real membership talks not get underway until the second part of 1999. Kohl, facing a tough election battle in less than three months (September 27), is reported to have has gone along with the French demand. Many German voters worry that granting membership to Eastern candidates will result in large-scale immigration.
What exactly is screening and how is different from real negotiations? Van der Pas says the difference is merely what he calls "a semantic question:"
"Screening means explaining, first of all, the rules and legislation of the European Union --the so-called acquis-- to them (the candidates) in order to make them understand what rights and obligations there will be when they are members. But at the same time, we're asking them already 'negotiating questions,' if you like. We asked them, do you want transitional periods (that is, time to adjust their legislation and implementation of laws in certain areas). We asked them, can you accept the acquis? We asked them whether they're ready to apply it (the acquis) in terms of legislation and implementation....We asked them whether they're ready in terms of institution-building. So the least you can say is, we're exploring what the negotiating substance is. And for the candidates, the distinction between screening and negotiations is a somewhat artificial one."
Transition periods in certain areas of EU regulations are likely to be requested by some of the candidate states. Indeed, Hungary has already asked for such grace time in the area of telecommunications. But current EU members are likely themselves to ask for even longer transition periods, particularly in key areas like the free flow of persons --as well as goods-- that constitutes the EU single market's most important provisions. Van der Pas admits, again in careful diplomatic language, that a long transition period in this area is at least a distinct possibility:
"That is not to be entirely excluded. If you read the German or Austrian press, you will see there that national and regional politicians are in fact already preparing the ground...I've seen (references of) up to 15 years for the free movement of persons (being asked for by German and Austrian politicians). I find it a bit early to talk about that for the simple reason that these remarks are made in a national debate that have some --how shall I say?-- some frightened overtones....It is of course, in the present situation of high (EU) unemployment, quite understandable that people start to ask questions about what would happen on the labor market if many more people, especially at low salaries, would come in and take scarcely available jobs."
To be sure, worries in Western Europe --and particularly in van der Pas' home country, Germany --about cheap Eastern labor depriving West European workers of jobs are understandable. But few people in the East have been informed of this by their own governments. And even fewer there realize that a partial membership, excluding participation in the free flow of persons and other critical EU areas for 15 or more years, is probably all they can now reasonably expect.
Some high EU officials have recently begun to talk publicly of the year 2005 as the earliest possible accession date for one or more of the five active Eastern candidates. Simple addition shows, therefore, that it could take up to a quarter-of-a-century and probably longer --that is, well over a generation-- for all the Eastern candidates to be admitted as full members, equal to their Western counterparts
Much could happen between now and then to change matters, but more than likely changes would extend rather than reduce the time needed for the East to integrate fully with the West. It would be healthy for all concerned if that were publicly recognized as a fact of life by both the EU and Eastern governments.