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Eastern Europe: EU Applicants Present Their Cases For Membership

By Villu Arak

Chief negotiators from six EU candidate countries met in Prague last week for the latest in a series of multilateral consultations. RFE/RL correspondent Villu Arak reports that the diplomats were optimistic that the date for EU expansion would be announced within a year -- possibly this December.

Prague, 27 September 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The six countries hoping to be next to join the European Union may be rivals in the race to join, but they are united in their desire for a firm date of expansion. The front-runners to become new EU members are Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Estonia, and Cyprus. They have been holding regular two-day meetings to discuss the common challenges facing EU aspirants.

At the latest such meeting, in Prague last week, the countries' chief negotiators for EU accession hinted that the nature of such consultations may soon change. By November, all applicants will have presented their final position documents to Brussels, leading to final negotiations with the EU in the first half of 2000.

There is one catch, however: No one really knows when the 15-nation European Union will be ready to adopt new members into the family. The EU has so far been vague about the date for expansion. It has been preoccupied with the reform of its own institutions and decision-making structures.

But the tone of vagueness appears set to change. Romano Prodi, the new president of the European Commission, has made it his goal to integrate at least one Central or Eastern European country into the EU during his five-year term. Prodi has suggested an entry date for some candidates should be set at the EU summit in Helsinki this December. Alar Streimann, the chief EU negotiator for Estonia, voiced that hope.

"I think we all share the view that the meeting in Helsinki might have a positive impact on the enlargement process. Of course, we cannot predict what will be the final outcome of the meeting because that's a matter to be decided by the member countries."

Applicant countries are well aware that current EU member states are wary of opening their borders to citizens from poorer countries. So the EU negotiators from applicant states tried to ease those concerns. Streimann of Estonia addressed one of the biggest worries for EU countries -- the fear that an influx of East Europeans will swamp the labor markets of the EU:

"The analysis which we have been doing shows that the interest of people from Estonia to move out to the member countries... to the other member countries to seek work would be very, very low. Economic possibilities in Estonia today are much greater than perhaps would be the possibilities in present member countries. We are ready to open our labor market fully so we can see no problems in that respect."

Jan Kulakowski, head of the Polish EU negotiating team, concurred. Kulakowski said fears of a potential flood of immigrants from Eastern Europe are exaggerated:

"We feel that the danger of mass immigration from Poland is very exaggerated, and we would like to take as (an) example when Spain and Portugal joined the (European) Union -- the European Community at that time -- everybody was afraid in the Union also that there will be mass immigration from Spain and Portugal. It was not (the case). And we think that with the progress and development of our membership, we have the same phenomenon."

In the coming months, the negotiators will continue to press the cases for their countries to join the union as soon as possible. In November, the countries will present their final reports on their readiness to join. The EU summit in Helsinki follows in December, and the candidates' final bilateral talks with Brussels will take place early next year.

The next immediate step comes just two weeks from now, at the highest-level meeting of the six hopefuls so far. The meeting, in Tallinn on October 11, will bring together the six countries' foreign ministers.