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EU: Helsinki Summit To Wrestle With Expansion Issues

European Union leaders meet in Helsinki on Friday and Saturday (Dec. 10 and 11) for a summit which seems certain to extend an invitation to five more Central and East European candidate countries to open membership negotiations. RFE/RL correspondent Breffni O'Rourke takes a look at key issues related to EU expansion.

Prague, 8 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- European Union leaders are about to gather in the Finnish capital Helsinki for a summit which is expected to greatly extend the process of membership negotiations with candidates from the East.

If all goes according to plan, the weekend meeting will invite five more Central and East European states, plus Malta, to open formal membership negotiations in the new year. The Easterners are Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, Latvia, and Lithuania.

They will join the five front-running Eastern candidates -- namely Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Estonia, and Slovenia -- which, along with Cyprus, started negotiations with Brussels last year. Each country will then proceed at its own pace towards EU membership.

The EU, at the prompting of the new Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen, wants to appear enthusiastic about moving forward with membership for the impatient Easterners, who have already been waiting for years. But the real question now is whether the EU is actually prepared to move ahead.

In other words, the EU is not internally ready to accept new members, and the main hindrance in future might not be the unreadiness of applicants, but the unreadiness of the EU to cope with the influx. Reijo Kempinnen, spokesman for the EU's Finnish Presidency, signaled the growing awareness of this in remarks to RFE/RL:

"There's nothing particularly controversial at this point [about offering the invitations], but one thing which may cause quite a lot of discussion in Helsinki is the question of dates, whether or not the union should set dates for the next accession, and here the prevailing mood among the countries is that we should think more in terms of when the union itself is ready for the next enlargement."

It seems clear that the EU would eventually be paralyzed and would risk disintegration if the envisaged expansion to some 27 members is not accompanied by a streamlining of decision-making processes. And beyond the present list of candidates there's still another line-up of more distant and often more troubled hopefuls, like Turkey, Ukraine, and nations from the former Yugoslavia. In Helsinki, EU leaders will try to set an agenda for the Intergovernmental Conference (IGC) which is to start next year under the Portuguese presidency. The IGC will wrestle with highly controversial reform issues like reducing or eliminating the use of a veto by any one member to block the will of the majority. Kempinnen points to the potential of the veto right to wreck the Union's decision-making process:

"We have to take a very serious look at how many things within the enlarged Union can be decided on the basis of unanimity, and thus the question of extending majority voting in the Union becomes an overwhelmingly important one."

Just how bitter the disagreements inside the EU can become has been clear in recent weeks in the context of a proposed withholding tax on savings. Nearly all EU members want such a measure to catch those who avoid tax in their own countries by depositing money in other EU states. Britain alone flatly rejects such a tax, for fear it would drive out of London the multi-billion dollar eurobond market. Britain threatens a veto if necessary. If the tax issue is discussed in Helsinki, as expected, the atmosphere will be one of deep discord, and will illustrate how one member under present rules can freeze the integration process.

Returning to the question of enlargement, Turkey will present a particular problem for the summit. It is not clear whether the leaders will decide to approve the EU Executive Commission's recommendation to make that country a formal candidate for membership. Turkey, which has been widely criticized for an insufficient observance of human rights, has been seeking a place in the EU queue since the 1960s. It was last rejected in 1997, an event which deeply offended Ankara. A rejection in Helsinki would be sure to unleash a wave of new anti-European feeling in Turkey. The presidency's Kempinnen tries to view the issue positively:

"As the presidency, we sincerely hope the question can be solved in Helsinki and that Turkey's status as a candidate country could be recognized with the same conditions and provisions like any other applicant country." But it appears a wide-open question. Greece, Turkey's arch-rival, is reportedly demanding from Ankara a timetable for improving human rights -- which Turkey has in the past been unwilling to give -- plus a declaration from the EU saying Turkey must not be able to veto Cyprus joining the EU. Athens also wants EU support in its Aegean territorial rows with Turkey.

Sweden also expresses grave doubts about Turkey's human rights record. And, adding to the uncertainty, most EU members say any move by Turkey to execute condemned Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan would ruin Turkey's chances of acceptance.

(RFE/RL will issue a second feature by O'Rourke tomorrow on the EU Summit and European security issues.)