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East/Central Europe: EU Shows 'Faltering' Commitment To Expansion

London, 1 December 1998 (RFE/RL) -- A leading analyst of European affairs says that European Union member states are beginning to show what she calls "a weak and faltering commitment" to the 15-nation group's expansion to Central and Eastern. She predicts enlargement will not begin before the year 2005.

Kirsty Hughes, Deputy Director of Britain's Institute for Public Policy Research, is also concerned about the creation of what she described as new "dividing lines" separating the Eastern applicant countries into two membership groups, one fast-track and the other slower-track.

Hughes, one of Europe's top experts on the enlargement process, spoke to a conference last week on Emerging European Markets at the Royal Institute of International Affairs (RIIA). The same conference was told by Jan Kulakowski, chief negotiator of Poland's entry into the EU, that his country expects to be a member of the EU by January 2003.

"I think I am being quite objective when I say that Poland will be a member of the European Union from January 2003."

But Hughes is more pessimistic about target accession dates. She says the EU continues to be slow in coping with historic changes that have taken place in Central and East European since 1989, and still lacks a key strategy to cope with enlargement. She also questions the depth of many EU member states' commitments to enlargement. She said: "What we've seen more intensely in the past year or so is not only a very mixed commitment to enlargement across the EU ...but actually the beginnings of a somewhat weak or faltering commitment by the member states."

Hughes, who is a former head of the RIIA's European Program, calls relations between the applicant countries and the EU Executive Commission "problematic," partly because of what she characterizes as a "virtually colonial attitude coming out of Brussels." According to her, contrary to assertions of politicians and officials, expansion is proving not to be an inclusive process but is "creating new dividing lines which are undesirable economically and politically."

Cyprus and five Eastern countries --Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovenia and Estonia-- opened substantive membership talks with the EU earlier this month. But five others --Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Latvia and Lithuania-- have been told to wait in the queue.

Hughes said the EU member countries have always had different economic and geopolitical interests in expanding the Union. Those closest geographically to the 10 Eastern candidates --Germany, Austria, Sweden and Finland-- have the greatest interests in seeing stability in the East, and have built the strongest trade and investment ties with the applicant nations.

But France, Spain, Portugal and Ireland, countries that are both further away geographically and with smaller economic interests in the East, are much less enthusiastic about enlargement. Hughes said that France, over the past six to nine months, has moved to slow down the enlargement process, raising issues like the dispute over the divided island of Cyprus as stumbling blocks to progress.

Hughes also said that Austria, despite clear economic interests in expansion, is beginning to get more hesitant, reflecting domestic concerns about crime, labor migration and unemployment.

Hughes also noted that on the EU side there are many issues that could be used to stall the enlargement process. They include the coming difficult negotiations over internal reforms of the EU's Common Agricultural Policy, structural funding to its poorer members, and basic changes in the Commission and voting procedures.

She said she was concerned that the EU "process looks like moving slowly, even for the first couple of entrants." At the same, she added, the EU is "putting all the burden of adjustment on Central and Eastern Europe, which means it's assuming that the transition countries are going to remain stable."

Hughes said the decision to divide the Eastern applicants into two groups has had some serious consequences. The front-runner countries are being urged by EU officials to increase their border controls, not only between themselves and the second Eastern group, but also with third countries. Thus, the Polish-Ukrainian border is being tightened, Hungary is being pressed to step up border controls with Romania and Slovakia, and the Czech Republic is being urged to do the same with Slovakia.

Hughes said that EU pressure for tighter border controls has implications for political stability and the status of minorities in the Eastern candidate states. She believes that the short-term interests of EU members are taking precedence over wider economic, political and stability interests. Those same EU interests, she said, also fail to take into account the need to encourage the Central and East European candidate nations, in her phrase, "to stay as open as possible."