The European Union has unveiled a bold new approach to Eastward enlargement. As set out in the annual progress reports on the candidate countries, issued yesterday, the new strategy includes extending negotiations to six more states. At the same time, the EU has shown it wants many of the candidate countries to work harder at preparing themselves for membership.
Prague, 14 October 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The European Union has announced a radically new approach to the process of enlargement into Central and East Europe.
At the core of the new strategy is the decision to recommend the start of negotiations next year with six more countries, namely Slovakia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Bulgaria, and Malta. These countries, considered as the group of less advanced candidates for membership, will therefore join the six so-called first wave countries, which have already opened negotiations with Brussels. They are Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Slovenia, and Cyprus.
Turkey is now also acknowledged as a formal candidate, but is not yet admitted to negotiations, on the grounds that key criteria are not yet met.
In the new negotiations, each country will progress towards meeting membership requirements at its own individual pace -- a principle called differentiation.
The new accession strategy bears the stamp of the EU's first commissioner for enlargement, Guenter Verheugen of Germany. Verheugen says the strategy is aimed at balancing two potentially conflicting objectives, namely speed of accession and quality of preparation. He says speed is essential because of the expectations of the candidates. He says quality is vital because the EU does not want "partial members," but new members with full rights and responsibilities.
Verheugen has also brought more clarity on the vexed question of when new members will be admitted. The report welcomes the fact that some applicants have already set their own target dates. It says that the EU Commission will recommend that the EU summit in Helsinki in December should commit the EU to be ready to decide from 2002 about the accession of candidates that fulfill the necessary criteria.
Turning to the individual countries, the progress report names Slovakia as having made good progress during the year, both in terms of democratization and economic reform. However, it says that Slovakia does not yet have a fully functioning market mechanism, and in addition needs to do more to implement policy decisions and legislation on administration and the judiciary.
The head of the EU integration section of the Slovak Foreign Ministry, Jan Kuderjavy, told RFE/RL that Brussels' assessment will provide fresh drive to the government, the parliament, and also to the general public:
"I think this kind of relatively positive evaluation was badly needed here and now I think everybody can see that the effort which was employed throughout the whole year, since our [reform] government was established last autumn, is bringing already first fruits."
Lithuania, like Slovakia, is not yet regarded as having a full market economy, and in addition is seen as sluggish in adapting its legislation to fit EU norms. Fellow Baltic state Latvia needs to devote serious attention to general public administration and judicial reform, but has made good economic progress in the last year. Estonia, which is also doing well economically, needs to ensure that its language legislation is implemented in such a way as to comply with international standards.
Turning to Bulgaria and Romania, the report finds that neither country met economic criteria. Bulgaria continues to make significant progress and shows sustained effort, but started from a very low level. Romania has, at best, stabilized as compared with last year. In the case of both those countries the EU Commission has set conditions before membership negotiations can begin.
For Bulgaria these are that it must continue to make economic reform progress, and must decide by the end of this year on an acceptable closure date for the nuclear reactors at Kozloduy. For Romania, the terms are that it too must make continued economic progress, and in view of the large number of orphans in the country, it must implement reform of institutions.
The deputy head of Romania's diplomatic mission in Brussels, Viorel Ardeleanu, told RFE/RL that his country will work hard to meet the conditions, so that negotiations can begin. And Ardeleanu praised the EU's new approach:
"The main thing is that all six countries are invited to start negotiations in 2000, this is an extraordinary signal for the political class and in general for the whole society in Romania, and concerning the strategy, we consider the differentiation principle to be good for us."
Turkey, with its long-strained relations with the EU, is a special case. The report recommends that Turkey be made -- at last -- a formal candidate. This gives it the prospect of eventual EU membership. But at the same time the EU declines to open negotiations with Ankara, pointing to failings of democratization. The Commission urges Turkey to undertake specific steps. These include enhancing domestic political dialogue, with particular reference to improving human rights; reorganizing the way it handles EU financial assistance; and developing a national program for adjusting its legislation to EU norms.
Turning to the west Balkans, the EU report recommends that EU leaders confirm the prospect of eventual EU membership for the former Yugoslav states plus Albania. But it says that in addition to meeting the usual criteria, those countries would have to mutually recognize each others' borders, settle all issues relating to national minorities, and pursue economic integration in a regional framework.
Looking further afield, the report notes that relations with Russia, Ukraine, the Caucasus states, and the Maghreb countries of North Africa are of strategic importance to the EU. The report says ties should go beyond trade and assistance programs, and take-in subjects like the fight against organized crime, drug trafficking, migration and environmental policies.