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East: Post-Kosovo Realities Could Jolt EU Expansion Plans

The European Union is continuing with the creaking pace of its preparations to admit new members from Central and Eastern Europe. But as the time draws near for the EU to issue new progress reports on the candidates, our correspondent Breffni O'Rourke reports that the Kosovo conflict may have created a new dynamic that Brussels cannot ignore.

Prague, 2 September 1999 (RFE/RL) -- European Union bureaucrats -- now back at work in Brussels after the summer break -- are starting to compile a series of reports that will have a significant impact on the hopes of eastern candidate countries to join the EU.

The keenly awaited annual progress reports are set for issue late next month. They will outline the progress -- of lack of it -- made by the candidates toward fulfilling the conditions for eventual membership.

This is only the second time the EU Executive Commission is issuing such reports, and already they have become a high point of the year as the 10 eastern applicants strive to advance their approval ratings.

This year, most of the attention will focus on whether the commission will advise starting direct negotiations with any of the so-called "second-tier" countries -- Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Lithuania, and Latvia.

So far, they have been judged not advanced enough for that and have had to be content with a pre-negotiation harmonization process called screening. Five other "front-runners" are already in negotiations, namely Poland, Hungary, Estonia, the Czech Republic, and Slovenia.

The progress reports will go to the summit of EU heads of state or government in Helsinki in December. The political leaders there can approve the recommendations as they stand, or they can change them. This year, power politics could play a significant part in exactly what happens.

The EU Commission is drawing up its recommendations on the strictly technical grounds of how well the applicants are adapting to the EU's complex body of common rules. But the political dynamics created by the Kosovo conflict could overturn the EU's staid views.

In the wake of NATO's war with Yugoslavia, influential political leaders and officials -- notably Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair -- have spoken of the imperative of speeding EU membership for Romania and Bulgaria as a means of promoting regional stability.

Both Bucharest and Sofia are looking for a pay-off from their loyal support for NATO during the air campaign, and they want it to come in Helsinki. Romanian diplomatic sources tell RFE/RL on condition of anonymity that Blair's comments are not being seen as mere "rhetoric." The sources say a lot depends on how much support views like Blair's have among the other 14 EU leaders. But they say "positive results" are hoped for at the Helsinki summit.

Brussels does not see it that way.

Incoming EU enlargement commissioner Guenther Verheugen has already staked out the ground, saying he does not foresee any loosening of the accession criteria. In remarks made to RFE/RL, a spokesman for current EU president Finland, Reijo Kemppinen, supported that line:

"You have to remember that the accession negotiations are not just a hurdle that has to be passed in order to join the European Union. They are something which help the applicant countries to sort out their own affairs. That's what it's all about, the levels -- be it on economic, political, or legislative levels -- of the European Union and the applicant countries will have to come closer over time before enlargement can take place."

Kemppinen warned against "undermining " the accession process, with "promises which could prove to be groundless," as he put it.

By the EU's criteria, Romania in particular, as well as Bulgaria, are probably not much further along the accession road than they were last year. Lithuania is still in a medium position and probably can't expect a clear endorsement for negotiations. Latvia in particular and late-starter Slovakia have already had strong encouragement from Brussels and could be offered negotiations.

One way for Brussels to sidestep the whole issue would be to simply remove the artificial dividing line between those negotiating and those not yet admitted to that rank. In other words, to declare a readiness to open negotiations with all applicants. That would give an appearance of speeding up the process.

However, if the actual criteria for entry remained unchanged, the EU would have preserved its basic way of doing things.