The European Union says it wants to open membership negotiations with six more countries, mostly from Central and East Europe. Is this a real advance towards expansion, or does it only appear so?
Prague, 14 October 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The process of eastward enlargement of the European Union underwent a major change yesterday, when EU Commission President Romano Prodi announced that he will recommend opening substantive negotiations with six more candidate countries.
Prodi was addressing the European Parliament in Brussels ahead of the publication of the annual progress reports of all 12 candidates for membership.
Prodi reached back into history for his theme. An Italian with a flair for the grand gesture, he said that EU enlargement represents a rare opportunity in history. He said that not since the fall of the Roman Empire has there been such a chance to unite Europe. This time, though, unity would be achieved not by force of arms, but through shared ideals.
Prodi said the Commission will recommend to the Helsinki summit of EU leaders in December that negotiations should begin with Slovakia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania and Bulgaria, as well as Malta. Until now, these countries have been denied direct negotiations with the EU on the grounds that they were unripe in their economic or political and social development. Prodi did, however, say that certain limitations would apply to Romania and Bulgaria.
As outlined in the progress reports, Romania is being asked to improve its record of caring for orphans and to take steps to speed economic recovery. Bulgaria must demonstrate continuing progress in economic reform and give a firm date for closure of the outdated Kozloduy nuclear power station, which the EU considers highly dangerous.
And Turkey also received a prize today. Brussels has long spurned Ankara in its attempts to be formally named as a candidate for membership, largely because of major deficiencies in democratization and human rights. But today the commission conferred on Turkey the status of candidate.
Turkey, however, was not invited to begin negotiations yet.
Reaction on the part of the affected countries was immediate. Latvian Foreign Minister Indulis Berzins, who is visiting Brussels, told RFE/RL:
"Of course, we are happy with this result, because this new fast-track approach is very important for us, because we are good enough to move forward with our individual speed, possibly to be join the European Union, maybe in the first group after 2002."
Speaking for the Lithuanian diplomatic mission to the EU, Counselor Zigismund Pavilionis said the moment is one of joy for his country:
"Absolutely. After two years of disappointment, third time round we have been invited. I think that is a very good message for us, especially as we have taken this very difficult decision to close our only nuclear power station (at the EU's request)."
The big question is, of course, whether through Prodi's pronouncement, the EU enlargement process has taken a real leap forward -- or whether it only appears to have done so.
By starting negotiations early next year, the second-level six will be joining the so called first-wave group -- Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Cyprus, Estonia and Slovenia -- who have been negotiating with Brussels for many months. But only the easy questions have been settled with those first-wavers, the really difficult bargaining over issues like agriculture remain still to be faced.
The cynical might say that having more countries in direct negotiations does not necessarily speed the accession process as a whole. The more optimistic, by contrast, would say you have to start a process as a condition of finishing it, so therefore yesterdays announcement marks a real advance.
Time alone will tell.