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Central/Eastern Europe: Report On Progress Toward EU Membership Sparks Controversy

Prague, 5 November 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The European Union has provoked a measure of anger and frustration among the Central and East European countries with its reports on how applicants are progressing towards eventual EU membership.

The reports, issued by the EU Executive Commission in Brussels yesterday, confirm the EU's view that only five countries --Poland, Hungary, Slovenia, Estonia and the Czech Republic-- are sufficiently advanced to be considered for what it called "first-wave" membership. The Commission said these five have functioning market economies and should be able to cope with competitive pressures within the Union in the medium-term.

This assessment dashed the hopes of Latvia in particular of being included in the first wave. The report did at least offer encouragement to the Latvians, saying that if they continue to make good progress, they will be considered for inclusion in the first wave before the end of next year. But Latvian Foreign Minister Valdis Birkavs reacted strongly, saying he finds the EU view inconsistent. He asked that if his country is making progress now, why should the EU doubt that will continue?

The final decision not to bring Latvia into the first group was only taken at a Commission meeting yesterday, just before the reports were issued. An EU source told RFE/RL that some EU member states had been backing Latvia's advance, while others did not favor it. The countries in favor probably included Finland and Sweden, both motivated by regional solidarity.

Lithuania, the Baltic republic perceived as the least prepared, won a fainter measure of praise from the Commission, which said it had made progress but needed to do more to meet the EU's criteria for a functioning market economy. Vilnius also came under specific criticism for failing to respect international obligations on nuclear safety --a reference to the continued operation of the Ignalina power station.

Reacting angrily to the Commission report, Lithuanian Prime Minister Gediminas Vagnorius said the EU had not previously told the Lithuanians about their shortcomings in the economic sphere. At a recent meeting with top EU officials in Brussels, Vagnorius was even blunter, saying a failure to bring Lithuania into the first group soon would have a negative impact on Lithuania's stability, particularly in view of the Russian economic crisis next door.

The EU had further criticism to hand out to two front runners, the Czech Republic and Slovenia. Both countries were seen as "stagnating" in their efforts to bring their laws into conformity with EU norms, while Slovenia was singled out for failing to make the necessary major steps towards administrative reform.

As for the second-level applicants Bulgaria and Romania, the EU Commission said that neither can be considered as meeting the criteria for functioning market economies. The Commission allowed, however, that Bulgaria had made important progress recently --which, it said, needs to be sustained-- whereas it said that Romania's economic situation had significantly deteriorated.

Both countries were praised for increasing the tempo of their efforts to conform to EU legislative norms. In addition, Bulgaria was seen as having made progress in administrative reform even though those changes still needed reinforcement and time to settle in. Romania, on the other hand, was said not to have made necessary administrative reforms. Bulgaria was singled out, like Lithuania, for failing to meet accepted nuclear standards --a reference to its controversial Kozloduy plant.

Slovakia, a second-level applicant long considered ill-starred because of its faulty democratization process and erratic economic policies, came in for encouragement. The EU Commission said prospects had improved for membership negotiations with Slovakia following recent elections there. Those elections saw the government of Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar replaced by opposition elements seen as more committed to reforms. The EU said that as long as the democratic functioning of institutions is confirmed, and corrective economic measures are taken, progress is being made.

This is the first time that the EU Commission has issued annual country-by-country progress reports. Anticipating that they were likely to provoke sparks, the EU Commissioner responsible for expansion, Hans van den Broek, yesterday went out of his way to say that what he called the "goal posts" for EU membership have not been moved. He said the Commission has scrupulously applied the same criteria as previously, and that no political prejudice was involved. His comment came at a time when some of the most powerful EU members, notably Germany and France, have expressed new coolness towards a quick expansion of the Union.

Turkey was included in the report process, even though the EU has not accepted it has an official applicant country. The EU focused on that country's poor human-rights record, and the lack of civilian control of the army. It did acknowledge Turkey's vibrant economic sector, but said it was lopsided.

Ironically, Turkish Foreign Minister Ismail Cem provided one of the most cheerful reactions of the day to the EU report. He brushed aside the criticism as unfounded, and said the general comments showed Turkey is very much on the right track. He also said inclusion in the report process means the EU is beginning to view Turkey as an actual candidate for membership.