Prague, 31 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The European Union's special Berlin summit has come and gone, amid many fanfares about its successful adoption of a program for broad internal reform.
The reform package, called Agenda 2000, is aimed at giving the union a healthy financial framework so that it will be fit to absorb new members from Central and Eastern Europe early next century.
As the dust settles from the summit, which concluded in the early hours of last Friday, there is a key question for the 10 Eastern candidate countries -- has the summit really opened the way for speedy enlargement? The answer to that, according to some experts, is no.
One of them is Stanley Crossick, the head of the European Policy Center, a leading Brussels-based think tank. He believes the result of the Berlin summit actually indicates a slowing of the expansion process, rather than a speeding up.
Crossick says that the reform package does much to impose the sort of rational budgeting and spending discipline which will benefit the present EU members themselves. But he argues that it does little to create the financial space necessary for admission of new members, who are bound to be net beneficiaries from the EU budget for the foreseeable future, rather than net contributors. He says that's particularly true of large newcomers like Poland, with its huge and backward agricultural sector.
Crossick says the reason for this is that the reforms, as originally proposed by the European Executive Commission, were watered down in the course of the summit, in order to accommodate the often-conflicting national priorities of the various member states:
"The Commission saw the Agenda 2000 package, as originally presented, as smoothing the way for early enlargement. But the changes made in Berlin indicate that further fundamental changes have to be made before the first wave countries can be admitted."
The first wave countries are Poland, Hungary, Estonia, Slovenia and the Czech Republic, all of which are pressing to enter the EU as soon as possible. They have informally set their own target dates for entry, mostly around 2002 or 2003. But Crossick's view is that there's now a dwindling chance of new entries during the period of the Agenda 2000 budget, which runs to 2006.
"It seems likely that Poland's accession for instance could fall outside the terms of the present budget, and would be preceded by further budgetary and agricultural reforms in the union."
If Crossick is right, accession of the large, difficult-to-absorb first wave countries like Poland would probably not take place until 2007 at the earliest, and only after further complicated reforms inside the union.
Some others are thinking along the same lines, among them Finland's Agriculture Minister Kalevi Hemila. Soon after the summit ended, Hemila questioned whether the softened reform package could result in big enough savings to allow EU agricultural subsidies to be extended to any newcomers.
He noted that cuts in guaranteed farm prices, such as grains, had been decreased and that dairy sector reforms would not even begin to take effect until 2005, close to the end of the budget period. Hemila said it's clear that when reforms are moved further into the future, enlargement is pushed further into the future too.
In Denmark, the Agricultural Council, an umbrella organization of farmers, says much the same. Council chairman Peter Gemaelke said it's difficult to see how the EU can expand to take in new members when the "will to change is so restricted". He called on the union to adopt what he called "real" reforms.
Of course, those who helped broker the deal in Berlin do not officially share this view. German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who chaired the summit deliberations, told the German Parliament that the result was a successful compromise. He said that the urgent task now facing the commission is to press ahead with Eastern enlargement, without which, he said, the process of European integration will remain unfinished.