Brussels, 11 November 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The European Union has held another of its many extravaganzas, this time the first accession talks involving the five front-running Central and East European applicants plus Cyprus.
Yesterday's event, half serious and half public relations exercise, marked the first substantive negotiations at ministerial level on the terms on which the prospective members will eventually join the EU.
One after another, at 90 minute intervals, the foreign ministers of Poland, Hungary, Slovenia, Estonia, the Czech Republic and Cyprus filed into the conference room and faced the full Council of Ministers, consisting of all 15 EU foreign ministers. The serious aspect of the day was that in each case, they did settle some of the actual terms for joining. The public relations aspect was that little genuine bargaining was possible in just over one hour. The meetings were in effect for the rubber stamping of documents prepared in advance by lower officials. And rather than negotiations the meetings were more a question of the EU telling the applicants what they will have to do to join.
In each case, seven chapters of the EU's body of rules were covered at the meetings. Agreement was reached with each applicant on at least three chapters dealing with generally non-controversial issues like education policies, and science and research policies.
The real significance of the day lay not so much in the subjects of the negotiations, but in the fact that the applicant countries will be enmeshed closer with the EU. As Council of Ministers president Wolfgang Schuessel of Austria put it, "the expansion process is now unstoppable."
At press conferences after each meeting, journalists received assessments. Estonia won the most praise for its level of preparations so far, with EU officials, including the EU Commissioner in charge of enlargement Hans van den Broek, going out of their way to offer compliments. Council president Schuessel, smiling, made a rhyming phrase in English by saying to journalists that "Estonia is astonishing."
Estonian Foreign Minister Raul Malk later spoke with RFE/RL:
"I think it is an important event because ... it shows that the enlargement process is on track....It is a very important day for both (Estonia and the EU) and shows the credibility of the enlargement process."
At the other end of the spectrum was the Czech Republic, with unsmiling Foreign Minister Jan Kavan pledging his government will make every effort to get back on track after a poor assessment of its progress. At the press conference, van den Broek and Schuessel sat beside Kavan, also glum and constrained. They said Prague should take the EU's criticism in a constructive manner. Van den Broek said that the two sides are still in disagreement on aspects of trade, and he mentioned complaints by EU companies of alleged Czech dumping practices.
Slovenia, which also had some failings to admit, was let off more lightly, with van den Broek expressing confidence that Ljubljana will soon rejoin the ranks of the virtuous.
Poland was its usual assertive self. Foreign Minister Bronislaw Geremek spoke of Poland being "a partner" of the EU -- suggesting there is no question of it being a school boy standing in front of the teachers. And he said Poland will be ready to join by the end of 2002, suggesting that the EU should sort out its own internal troubles and be ready by that date too.
As is often the case at EU gatherings the unscheduled events were the ones that caught much of the attention. Greek Alternate Foreign Minister Yeoryios Papandreou gave a press conference where he hinted at a hypothetical situation in which Greece would reject any new members if Cyprus were denied entry. Northern Cyprus has been occupied by Turkish troops since 1974 and the Turkish Cypriot community is not part of the Greek-backed Cypriot effort to join the EU.
The Greek comment led Council president Schuessel to tell journalists that the Greek position is a type of "virtual reality" and that the "real reality" is that the accession process is moving forward. He said there is no blockade of new members. Still, the Greek threat hung in the air, a reminder of the interminable rivalry between Greece and Turkey, and its power to create international tension.