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Central/Eastern Europe: EU Seeks Right Approach To Candidates

Prague, 17 November 1998 (RFE/RL) -- As the European Union's Vienna summit approaches, its member states are facing the delicate political task of sending the right message of encouragement to those Central and East European countries applying to join the union.

The Vienna summit, marking the end of Austria's six-month EU presidency, will bring together the group's 15 heads of state or government on December 11 and 12. A main theme of their discussions will be the Eastward expansion process, notably including the question of whether negotiations on joining should be offered to the five countries now in the less advanced group of applicants. They are Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Bulgaria and Romania.

At present, the EU is negotiating actively with front-running Eastern applicants Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovenia and Estonia, as well as with Cyprus.

The EU's Executive Commission recently issued (Nov. 4) progress reports that said the time is not yet ripe to open accession negotiations with any country in the second group. The Vienna summit is unlikely to disregard that view by offering immediate negotiations to any members of the second group.

But an official at the EU's Council of Ministers in Brussels told RFE/RL that even the wording on the level of encouragement to be offered to the second group has become a delicate matter. The general line expected to be followed by the summit will be worked out at an advance meeting of the 15 EU foreign ministers in Brussels early next month (Dec. 7).

In its recent country-by-country progress reports, the European Commission gave particular encouragement to Latvia, saying that if it continues its present rate of progress, it will be considered for a place in the front running group by the end of next year. Lithuania and Slovakia were also given a measure of encouragement.

The EU official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said a difference of approach has emerged among member states on this issue. Some countries --France among them-- believe the EU should not commit itself to any definite time for bringing forward the less-advanced applicants into the first group. They say the general, non-specific prospect of joining the fast-track group should be enough in itself to motivate applicants to continue their economic and political reforms.

Another group of EU members, however, has a different view. It believes that the Union's encouragement to the less-advanced Eastern nations should not be vague, but rather should specify the advantages to be gained by candidates' progress, just as the Commission has done with Latvia. The Scandinavian EU members --Sweden, Finland and Denmark-- are said to hold this view. All are strong supporters of the swift entry of the three Baltic states into Western structures.

Latvia, a country now tantalized by the prospect of accession negotiations next year, is already working behind the scenes to ensure that its favorable position is maintained at the Vienna summit. A Latvian diplomat in Brussels told RFE/RL that the aim of his country's present wide contacts with individual EU members is to make sure there is no back-tracking in Vienna.

The diplomat said it would be, in his word, "wonderful" if the summit actually went beyond the Commission's recommendation and offered Latvia immediate negotiations. But given the state of the expansion process, the diplomat said it's more realistic to assume that next year is the best that can be hoped for. He said Latvia is content with that prospect, and wants to keep it intact.

Behind the EU member states' differences on what is known as "fast-tracking" lie the bigger issues of the Union's own difficult internal financial reforms. When the newcomers eventually join they are expected to be big recipients of EU financial support. So the more applicants allowed into the front-running group, the sooner and bigger will be their economic impact on the present members.

Internal reforms are essential. Some EU members, like Germany and the Netherlands, are concerned they are paying far too much into the present EU budget. Other less developed members like Spain and Portugal are worried that new members will siphon off their big EU regional and structural funding. And costly EU schemes like the Common Agricultural Policy must be changed as they are too expensive to be extended to new members.