The year has been a good one in terms of prospects for European Union expansion eastwards. But the easy decisions in the accession process are over, from now on the real problems of expansion are set to become prominent. RFE/RL correspondent Breffni O'Rourke sums-up the year, and looks ahead.
Prague, 17 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The last year of the century and the millennium has brought significant gains for the process of the European Union's expansion into Central and East Europe.
Six more candidate countries -- Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Lithuania and Latvia, plus Malta -- were invited at the recent Helsinki summit to open formal membership negotiations. Existing negotiations with six others -- Estonia, the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, Slovenia and Cyprus -- continued, bringing accord on some of the actual terms for membership.
Sharp disagreements between the European Commission and Bulgaria, Slovakia and Lithuania on the issue of nuclear power plant safety issues were satisfactorily resolved, and the EU members held a summit which successfully adopted the "Agenda 2000", an internal reform package designed, at least in theory, to create space for new members.
So if preparations are anything to go by, 1999 was a good year. But the reality is not quite so rosy, in that many of the steps taken were "on paper" as it were, they were more administrative than substantive. Like drum rolls before a stage curtain rises, they merely herald the coming drama, without advancing the plot.
Analyst Giles Merritt, who heads the Brussels-based Forum Europe consultancy, says the first-wave candidate countries are not in high spirits because of what they perceive as a lack of dynamism in the expansion process:
"The current wave of the enlargement negotiations is now getting right into the detail and finding it very difficult, finding that the Agenda 2000 arrangements agreed in Berlin don't really cover the case, that on areas like agriculture and free movement of people, and market access for industrial goods and so on, they have still got some pretty big problems."
Poland illustrates the difficulties not only for the candidates but for the EU itself. That country, with its huge and grossly inefficient farming sector, risks breaking the finances of the EU's Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) under present circumstances. That's because the Agenda 2000 reforms capped farm spending for present members, but did not address how new members are to be financed under the expensive CAP. That remains unchartered territory and is bound to be tough going for Brussels, Warsaw and the others.
For their part, Polish and other eastern farmers and food producers fear for their survival in direct competition with West Europe. The EU has 80,000 pages of regulations relating to agriculture alone, and officials of the candidates must often leaf through these pages with a sense of dismay. Can the candidate countries cope with all this? Alexandra Ashbourne, a senior analyst with the London-based Centre for European Reform spoke with RFE/RL:
"I think they have quite a difficult situation, they are dealing with the legacy of the Soviet occupation and the lack of administrative skills that West European nations have, but we are seeing slowly a new generation of leaders and bureaucrats emerging, it will be a long and tortuous process, but they will have to start getting ready."
As years go by, ordinary citizens of the candidate countries see little concrete benefits from the efforts at harmonization with the EU, and many have lost their enthusiasm. But Ashbourne says this month's Helsinki summit was genuinely important in that the new invitations to negotiate opened a new perspective for the second-tier easterners:
"It's a start. Somebody in Slovakia asked me what it really meant for the average Slovak. I answered, well, not a great deal for the time being, I still think we are not looking at any enlargement before 2005. But at the same time for the five candidate states it is a big step forwards, because there is at least now a decision on paper."
In the new year, as negotiations go forward with all 12 candidates, the onus will be on the EU to make real progress on the issue of internal institutional reform. The "Inter-Governmental Conference" (IGC) will try to equip the Union with a decision-making structure which can work even with expansion to 27 members. More likely there will be a watering down process such as occurred with Agenda 2000. But analyst Merritt expresses guarded optimism, based on the long perspective:
"In the end the EU does manage to get it all together, if you look back over the last 43 years, it has always been a bit of a mess, it's not always been a pretty sight, it's usually been behind schedule, it's all happened in fits and starts, but the whole integration process has continued to advance."
Merritt says that what he calls the "big problem dossier" of Poland and the other countries as capable of eventual resolution. In the meantime, he says, the candidates are constructively engaged in the European political system. This Merritt says, is important, because otherwise "terrible" nationalist politics, as he puts it, might be developing instead.