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East: Candidates And EU Put To The Test

The European Union today releases its annual reports on the progress of the Eastern candidate members towards accession. The reports have become a high point for impatient candidates eager to show that they have moved closer to fulfilling Brussels' requirements for entry. But, as RFE/RL correspondent Breffni O'Rourke writes, the release of the reports has also become an important test of how well the EU is handling the expansion process.

Prague, 13 October 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Central and East European candidate countries for membership of the European Union have arrived at one of the biggest moments of the year. Later today, the EU's Executive Commission in Brussels will release the annual reports on how well the candidates are moving towards fulfilling entry requirements.

Just like in school days, a good report card will open the prospect of advancement to the next stage, while a bad report will be a humiliating reminder that the candidate has not done all the necessary homework in the past year.

As Brussels-based policy analyst John Palmer puts it:

"It is an important moment, clearly. It's a preparation for decisions which will have to be taken by European Union heads of government in Helsinki in December, decisions about how quickly to conclude the negotiations with the 'first wave' countries, the first six candidates with whom negotiations have already begun; and secondly whether to extend those negotiations to perhaps another six countries in Central and East Europe and the Mediterranean. So that's a very ambitious strategy."

The first wave countries are Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovenia and Estonia, plus Cyprus. Of these, the Czech Republic appears certain to receive some black marks. Sources say the EU criticism will center on poor Czech performance in renovating the justice system and fighting corruption and money laundering. Also likely to be mentioned is the still-unsatisfactory position of the country's Romany minority.

Despite these shortcomings, however, it is almost inconceivable that the Czech Republic would be dropped out of the first wave of candidates. A number of other first-wavers may be criticized for slowness in dealing with environmental matters, such as meeting clean water and air targets.

But the key issue this year lies not among the first wave countries. Instead, it is the question of whether the EU commission will decide to recommend the opening of negotiations with some or all the second-wave countries, namely Slovakia, Lithuania, Latvia, Bulgaria, Romania and Malta. So far, Brussels has denied those countries substantive membership negotiations on grounds that they are not yet ripe.

The question is a thorny one for the EU itself, and the Commission will have to tread carefully if it is to avoid fueling the frustration already widespread among candidates. Romania and Bulgaria, the most backward of the formal candidates, would normally not expect to be offered negotiations at the same time as, for instance, the Baltic states.

But the Kosovo war has upset the previous pecking order, in that the EU now has committed itself to advancing stability in the Balkans as a priority. That means helping Romania and Bulgaria concretely forward towards EU membership, despite the strains it may cause.

Slovakia, too, is clamoring for special consideration, with the reformist government of Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda insistently pointing to the country's progress in democratization and economic restructuring since it took office last year. Leaving Slovakia out of negotiations for another year would be registered in Bratislava as a severe blow.

Faced with such complications, the EU Commission may simply recommend to the Helsinki summit to open negotiations with all candidates across the board, and to let the negotiations take varying amounts of time, according to the readiness of the individual applicants.

As analyst Palmer of the European Policy Center puts it, there is no easy road ahead:

"There is still a lot of work to be done, also on the side of the European Union, which must reform its institutions so as to be able to operate in a union of 27 or 30 member states in the years ahead."

With its recommendations today, the EU has the difficult task of demonstrating it can retain orderly control of the expansion process in the face of a growing clamor from applicants. Momentum is required, because an entire decade has passed since the fall of the Berlin Wall, and still no new members have been accepted into the Union. At the same time, the candidates must be prodded to move toward the norms that will be expected of them when they finally become EU members.