Five more Central and East European countries are opening formal membership negotiations with the European Union. Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, Latvia, and Lithuania thus join five other Eastern candidates, known as the "front-runners," which have already been negotiating for many months. The moment is ceremonially significant, but what substance does it have? Correspondent Breffni O'Rourke reports.
Prague, 10 February 2000 (RFE/RL) -- A big moment has arrived in the European Union's eastward expansion process. Formal membership negotiations are getting under way in Brussels between the EU and five more Central and East European candidate countries, namely Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Latvia, and Lithuania. (Negotiations start on Tuesday, Feb. 15)
Until now those five have not been considered ripe for negotiations, and have had to watch impatiently as the five "front-running" easterners, countries like Poland and the Czech Republic, went ahead with negotiations almost two years ago.
However, at the urging of the EU's new enlargement commissioner, Guenter Verheugen, the December EU summit in Helsinki decided to offer negotiations to all 10 Eastern candidates, plus Cyprus and Malta, and to let them progress at their own pace.
The newcomers are eager to press forward and make up for lost time by cutting quickly through the more than 30 chapters of EU requirements. As the counselor of the Lithuanian mission in Brussels, Zigismund Pavilionis says, his delegation has its priorities set out for the next 18 months.
"We will begin with the easiest chapters, and of course these should go quite smoothly. During the present Portuguese presidency we would like to open as many chapters as possible, because we do not think we have real problems in those areas --- and informally that's also the impression we have gained from the [EU Executive] Commission."
After Lisbon's presidency ends in June, France takes over that office, and the Lithuanians are determined to press ahead:
"When we come to the French presidency, we will come to more difficult chapters, but they will not be so hard that they cannot be tackled. It is our ambitious plan for the year 2000 to open half of all the negotiating chapters, and during the Swedish presidency in 2001, we will see what is the situation."
A Lithuanian government commission said this week that the country should be ready to join the European Union from the beginning of 2004.
The more difficult chapters in the coming negotiations are likely to include such topics as protection of the environment. That's an area where the EU imposes strict standards, for instance in cleanliness of water and air, which will cost candidates many millions of dollars to meet. Another likely problem point is agriculture, where likewise standards must be met, and where the whole issue of EU subsidies to the incoming farming communities must still be thrashed out.
Pavilionis goes on to say that his delegation hopes the EU side will actively help Lithuania find the way forward.
But not all the Eastern "front runners," who already have much experience in negotiating with Brussels, have found the path forward to be easy. Hungary's ambassador to the EU, Endre Juhasz, has strongly criticized the EU for, as he sees it, systematically avoiding the real issues.
In remarks published this week (in "Uniting Europe") Juhasz said that after nearly two years of talks, the time for making mere declarations has passed, and the real issues of membership must be confronted. Until now, he said, EU negotiating positions were mostly too evasive, and seemed to involve tactics like asking for more information rather than putting the EU's own cards on the table.
Juhasz said he will be deeply upset if, during the present Portuguese presidency, Hungary's negotiators receive only EU position papers "lacking substance." He said that if problems or even crises are to arise, it's best to face them openly now.
The ambassador's comments point to one of the characteristics of the EU, namely its aversion to confronting problems. That is probably a result of its unique structure, with a weak central authority in Brussels presiding over still-sovereign member states, each of which sees its own interests as sacred. This system means that the union is rarely able to reflect clear policies at any given moment.
Brussels is aware of this, and it also knows that the coming eastwards expansion could push the union to the brink of paralysis. Therefore next week (Monday Feb. 14) the European Union will start a conference on internal reform, which is supposed to lead eventually to a stronger, more cohesive entity able to cope with a doubling in the EU's size.
That process will have plenty of problems of its own. But then, that's another story.