Prague, 6 November 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The European Union is about to open substantive negotiations at ministerial level with Cyprus and the five Central and East European countries considered front runners for membership.
Foreign ministers of the five Eastern countries --Poland, Hungary, Slovenia, Estonia and the Czech Republic-- will be in Brussels on Tuesday (Nov.10) to meet their counterparts from the 15 EU member states.
Each of the five Eastern guests, plus Cyprus, will be invited to a separate session with the EU's Council of Ministers, as the Union's meetings of foreign ministers are called. Each will conduct a round of negotiations in areas such as common foreign and security policies, industrial policy, education and cultural policies.
The EU and all the 10 Eastern candidates --the second-level countries are Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Bulgaria and Romania-- have been engaged together for some time in what is called "screening." That is a process aimed at making candidates aware of where and how their laws and regulations differ from the EU norms that they will have to adopt before they can become members.
The screening is continuing. But Tuesday's meeting in Brussels will be the first high-level substantive negotiations aimed at setting some of the terms on which the Eastern nations will actually join the EU.
An EU official close in the Council of Ministers told RFE/RL this week that the areas due for initial discussion are by no means the most difficult ones. Those, and the toughest bargaining, lie ahead. But he said the meeting will be more than just a ceremonial occasion.
The official, who asked to remain anonymous, described the start of negotiations as a clear signal to the applicant states that the EU is not stalling on the issue of membership. But the encouragement Brussels seeks to give the Eastern candidates has been shadowed by political developments in the some of the most powerful EU member states.
Leaders in Germany, including new Social Democrat Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder himself, have spoken with unusual frankness in recent days about the need for what they call "realism" on when the first new Eastern members might be able to join. Bonn's preoccupation, like that of the French, the Belgians and the Italians, is that the EU's own internal reform process must take priority over admitting the Eastern candidates.
One German official, Deputy Foreign Minister Guenter Verheugen, singled out Poland by name, saying Warsaw could only achieve membership after what he described as a "long transition period." Nobody is talking firm dates yet, but the years between 2003 and 2006 have been mentioned.
At the heart of the German concern is that, given the right of mobility of labor within the EU, the high living standards of German workers could be undercut by the sudden arrival in the Union of millions of lower-paid Poles.
Poland, a bold reformer which is at the front of the front runners, is impatient about the prospect of long delays. Warsaw's chief negotiator with the EU, Jan Kulakowski, has called on the Union to continue with enlargement even while its internal reforms are in progress. And, typical of Poland's assertive stance, Kulakowski says Warsaw wants to be kept actively informed on the progress of EU internal reforms. Further, he says, Warsaw wants input into that process itself.
This week both the Poles and the Hungarians were buoyant because of what they regard as generally positive progress reports from the EU's Executive Commission (issued Nov. 4). Polish Ambassador to the EU Jan Truszczynski told RFE/RL that the report for his country indicates that everything is on track. He said that it even shows that Warsaw has achieved more than it had originally hoped for in the course of the year.
The Ambassador said that there is of course no certainty on the timing of the admission of new members. He also said the applicant countries must make their own efforts to align with the EU, and the EU must press on with its own reforms, as well as successfully introduce its new euro currency in January. And, he added, much will depend on whether current high unemployment within the EU can be reduced in the next few years. The state of the global economy will be yet another factor, he said.
On a more general level, one noticeable trend in recent months has been the increasing level of cooperation among the fast-track applicants themselves. Just over a month ago, the chief negotiators of the front-running group met in Brussels and decided to create panels of experts who would jointly analyze problems likely to arise in a number of areas. The idea behind that appears to be that, since all the countries have a common goal, they should work together in their common interests.