Prague, 11 January 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The five Central and East European countries in the lead for membership of the European Union are now preparing for a fresh round of negotiations on the terms for their accession.
Chief negotiators for the five --Poland, Hungary, Estonia, the Czech Republic and Slovenia-- have agreed among themselves to submit their countries' negotiating positions to the EU Executive Commission by the end of this month.
At stake will be a further eight chapters of the "acquis communautaire," the body of EU rules and regulations to which the candidate members must conform as part of their commitment to membership. This will be the second round of substantive negotiations between Brussels and the candidates. The first round took place in a festive atmosphere last November, when five chapters considered relatively easy were tackled.
This time, the eight further chapters will contain some of the more complex subjects, including the free movement of goods, consumer and health protection, fisheries, and customs union. A senior official with the EU's Expansion Task Force, Michael Leigh, explains:
"It is certainly true that some of the subjects which are on the table now, such as free movement of goods, are particularly complex. That heading is not the most difficult in terms of negotiations necessarily --that remains to be seen-- but one of the most complex, touching a wide variety of industrial fields and a great deal of community legislation."
Leigh notes also that the topic of customs union will have special complexity in the negotiations with the Czech Republic. That's because the Czechs already have a customs union with Slovakia, which they want to keep. But Slovakia, though a candidate for EU membership, is not among the front-running group of applicants like the Czech Republic, making it likely that Bratislava will be joining the EU at a later date than Prague. The question thus arises of how the Czechs are to be fully integrated into the EU internal market while preserving this link eastward.
The five eastern candidates, plus the sixth front-runner Cyprus, are now busy preparing their negotiating positions. The chief negotiators of the six met in Budapest last month and decided that they would follow a common timetable for submission of their position to the EU, --namely, at the end of this month. The actual bilateral negotiations between the EU and the individual delegations will begin in April and May at deputy level, followed by a full ministerial meeting in June.
Leigh says that for the success of the round much depends on the energy and preparedness of the candidate countries, but he cautions that things could take time.
"I am optimistic that all problems can be overcome with the necessary work and preparation and desire to find solutions, and I am sure that during the course of negotiations all these problems can be overcome, but it is hard to predict when."
There is now regular coordination among the six front-running candidates in the accession process. The heads of the national negotiating teams have agreed to meet regularly, with their next talks scheduled in Cyprus in April. They see this as both useful for their own countries and for the EU because it creates a certain harmony of approach in the negotiating process.
A senior official in the Hungarian Foreign Ministry's accession team, Zoltan Becsey, describes the cooperation as amicable. At the same time, he notes that it is mostly limited to procedural methods, meaning how to standardize ways of approaching the EU:
"We discuss many things, but mainly about the procedure, not about the content, so we do not discuss the content of our position papers in advance. After the presentation of our position papers to the EU, of course we inform the other candidates about our views, but there is no concrete obligation for consultation among us on the content of our positions".
The other five Eastern candidate countries -- Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Romania and Bulgaria -- have not yet reached the stage of substantive negotiations with the EU. In that second group, Latvia has received particular encouragement from the European Commission that if it keeps up its present level of progress, it should be ready to open negotiations before the end of this year.