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East: Leaders Welcome EU Invitation

By Breffni O'Rourke/Anthony Georgieff

Leaders from the six nations just invited by the European Union to open formal accession talks are expressing satisfaction with their advance toward membership. But a team of RFE/RL correspondents at the EU's Helsinki Summit report that many of these same leaders are also pondering the challenges that lie ahead.

Helsinki, 13 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- One day after their countries were invited to begin accession talks, leaders from Romania, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Latvia, Slovakia and Cyprus all expressed pleasure at the invitation. Their countries have been given the go ahead to begin formal entry talks as early as February. The six will join the Czech Republic, Hungary, Estonia, Poland, Slovenia and Cyprus, which began talks last year.

Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus, speaking with reporters in Helsinki, went perhaps the furthest when assessing the significance of the EU summit. He called the gathering, which concluded Saturday (Dec. 11), "the summit of the century". He said that it represented the beginning of a new phase in the creation of a new European structure.

Adamkus said that people had forgotten how long the goal of European integration had been pursued:

"It took over 50 years until we are coming to the point which was originally started such a long time ago. I am grateful that Lithuania is part of this. And I think that Lithuania is going to definitely work together and make sure that our contribution will be accepted by the entire European community."

Adamkus expressed the hope that Lithuania will become an EU member within five to seven years.

Latvian Prime Minister Andris Skele, also speaking with reporters in Helsinki, was even more optimistic on an entry timeline, expressing confidence his nation will see both a quick start and a rapid conclusion to its membership negotiations. He said he is confident his government will have completed by the end of 2002 talks in the 31 different areas where agreement is required before accession.

Latvia's Foreign Minister Indulis Berzins was asked about Riga's position on the issue of a common European military force and said it would be able to take up its obligations in that regard when it becomes a full member. The issue is potentially sensitive for Latvia because neighbor Russia is far from happy over the possibility of any of the Baltic states joining a western military arrangement. Apart from the objective of joining the EU, Latvia also wants to join NATO, and sees the eventual accession to the EU as a complement to its NATO application.

Bulgaria's Prime Minister Ivan Kostov shares this view. Kostov told reporters in Helsinki that Bulgaria's bids to join the EU and NATO are what he termed "two faces of the same coin".

But Bulgarian Foreign Minister Nadezhda Mikhailova added that Bulgaria's central position in the eastern Balkans dictated the necessity of maintaining good relations with all neighboring states. That seemed a clear reference to Yugoslavia. Sofia supported NATO's military campaign against Yugoslavia earlier this year.

Mikhailova said Bulgaria would not seek better ties only with nearby EU and NATO members at the expense of relations with others. She termed "preposterous" the idea that Bulgaria would mainly seek better ties with Greece simply because it is both an EU and a NATO member, or with Turkey, because it is a NATO member with close ties to the United States.

Romania's President Emil Constantinescu, in addition to expressing pleasure that his own nation had been invited to begin accession talks, welcomed the EU's decision to extend candidate status to Turkey. Constantinescu said it is very important that Christian Europe take in a Muslim people to show its cultural and economic diversity.

Leaders from countries which began formal accession talks with Brussels last year also were present in Helsinki.

One of these was Slovenia's Prime Minister Janez Drnovsek. And like Constantinescu, he welcomed the offering of candidate status to Turkey. He said that for membership, "the criteria should not only be common cultural and historical links but the stability of Europe".

Polish Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek told reporters he saw no reason why Poland could not become an EU member by 2003. He said Polish membership would help strengthen the influence of the EU in the East because of Poland's good relations with its eastern neighbors. He said membership would also allow Poland to more effectively contribute to the economic and political stability of Eastern Europe.

There has been considerable speculation over the effect that the expansion to 12 in the number of nations taking part in formal accession talks would have on the prospects of individual candidates. In short -- might it slow down membership for some states that are more ready simply because the whole process has become more complex?

In its final declaration, EU leaders made clear that the earliest any state could enter would be 2002, and stressed that each would then be judged on its readiness. The EU has also committed itself to sorting out internal reforms by the end of 2002 -- reforms EU leaders say are necessary before new members join.

Estonian Foreign Minister Toomas Hendrik Ilves was asked by reporters in Helsinki whether this internal EU reform process didn't represent a delay in the way of candidate states.

"No, we haven't lost anything yet. Everything is basically in our hands, and right now, given enough work, all our goals are still attainable."

Jan Kavan, the Czech Foreign Minister, welcomed the EU decision to invite the six to begin negotiations, and added he looked forward to cooperating with them. He was asked what he thought of the fact that some applicant states were behind the Czech Republic in terms of the economy, the quality of democracy, and the treatment of social issues. Kavan replied that Czech leaders hope they "will be able to finish first in the regatta". But he added that the push for EU membership is "not a horse-race".