Britain is expected to press for enlargement of the European Union at the Helsinki summit next week. RFE/RL London correspondent Ben Partridge attended a Foreign Office briefing on the summit this week and sends this report.
London, 2 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Britain says it wants next week's (Dec. 10-11) European Union summit in Helsinki to agree to an expansion of its enlargement negotiations early next year to include the second wave of accession candidates from Central and Eastern Europe.
The British position was outlined yesterday to journalists by a senior Foreign Office official. The official -- who asked to remain anonymous -- said Prime Minister Tony Blair's government hopes that the Helsinki meeting will be "a historic enlargement summit" that will clearly underline the 15-nation EU's commitment to the process of expanding its membership.
A total of six countries are in the so-called "second tier" of applicants -- Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Malta. The EU has already begun talks with six other applicant countries: Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovenia, Estonia, and Cyprus.
The Foreign Office official said Britain's commitment to an expanded EU was reinforced during the Kosovo conflict by the recognition that enlargement "was one of the tools at our disposal to foster better long-term security and prosperity in Europe." Prime Minister Blair said at the time that the EU's "new architecture" should have more "inclusiveness" in order to bring into the negotiating process countries like Bulgaria and Romania.
Last night, Britain's commitment to enlargement was spelled out in a parliamentary debate by Foreign Secretary Robin Cook.
"Some day, these dozen countries are going to be members, full members, of the EU. It is in Britain's interests that they should remember us as an ally and an advocate of their membership."
The Foreign Office official said Britain hopes that the Helsinki summit's decision on starting membership talks within months with the six second-tier countries would be "unambiguous, without any new hurdles." It hopes as well that the meeting establishes the shape of the next phase of membership talks -- but not change in membership criteria.
The official said Britain also wants the summit to commit the EU to having the internal institutional reforms necessary for enlargement in place by 2002. He said the Helsinki summit -- which marks the end of Finland's six-month EU presidency -- is expected to give the go-ahead for an inter-governmental conference early next year that will "decide [on] the institutional reforms necessary to make enlargement happen."
In addition, Britain will urge its EU partners to confirm Turkey's status as a candidate for EU membership. The Union's relationship with Ankara has been difficult because the Turks feel they have been unfairly left out of the accession process.
The Foreign Office official said that the Blair government wants the Helsinki summit to "initiate a new phase in the enlargement process, and give the whole process a push, an impetus." He said the 15 EU member nations must show the candidate countries that they have the political will to go ahead with the final stages of the expansion process.
The official said: "The British government hopes that at Helsinki [the 15] will say clearly that from the end of 2002 the union will be ready to take the necessary decisions on enlargement." At the same time, the EU wants applicant countries to continue their efforts to meet their own internal deadlines for restructuring and legal reforms.
Even though the official underlined Britain's desire for more inclusive accession talks, he said that beginning negotiations with the second-tier six will mean that the EU will need to differentiate more rigorously among candidates. He added: "Obviously, we can't proceed like a convoy -- [that is,] at the speed of the slowest."
Foreign Secretary Cook expressed confidence last night that the Helsinki summit will strengthen the EU:
"We therefore will work to make a success of the Helsinki summit. Its agenda offers the prospect of a European Union that is wider, European institutions that are more effective, and European security that is stronger."
Enlargement of the EU through inclusion of the 12 current candidates would increase the Union's overall population by more than 100 million and its land area by one-third. With 27 members, the EU would also constitute the world's largest single market for trade and investment. But much depends on the course of negotiations over the next two years.