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Baltics: Lithuania And Latvia Get Together In EU Membership Drive

Lithuania and Latvia are about to join their front-running neighbor Estonia in holding substantive membership talks with the European Union. In a fraternal spirit, Estonia will share with them the experiences gained in the course of its own negotiations since 1998. Correspondent Breffni O'Rourke reports.

Prague, 3 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The three Baltic states have all set ambitious target dates for joining the European Union. They want to accede to the union within four years at the latest.

But the experience of front-runner Estonia may provide a caution signal to Latvia and Lithuania, which will open their own substantive negotiations at the end of this month (Mar. 28).After a two years of detailed talks with Brussels, Estonia has finalized only eight of the 31 required chapters of negotiations.

In the run-up to the start of talks with Lithuania and Latvia, RFE/RL spoke to diplomats in Brussels from all three states.

The head of Estonia's mission to the EU, ambassador Priit Kolbre, said his country is more than willing to share with Baltic colleagues the insights gained in two difficult years of negotiations. He said there has been frequent contacts on the subject between the three governments. His personal advice to negotiators is:

"You should be tough, of course, but in order to be tough and successful you should very clearly understand what is behind the EU requirements during the negotiations, and whether they are just positions in principle, or whether there is a substantial interest to maintain." Lithuanian diplomatic mission counselor Zigismund Pavilionis says advice from Estonia is welcome, but that his country is also receiving guidance from other countries. Pavilionis mentioned Poland -- which he called Lithuania's "strategic partner" -- as well as other advanced Central European candidates and Nordic countries like Finland, which have only recently joined the EU. Pavilionis is optimistic that Lithuania can catch up with Estonia's lead:

"We hope, yes, and we will try to prove it in our negotiations. I would say 15 negotiating positions will be ready at the actual start of the talks, though of course we will submit only those positions suggested by the EU, that should be opened during the Portuguese presidency (until July 1), but in any case we hope that this year we will open more than half of all the negotiating chapters".

Estonia's envoy Kolbre, however, doubts the likelihood that all three Baltic republics can be ready for accession at the same time, a concept favored by Latvian officials:

"In theory, the three countries could join together, but looking from the other side, I personally believe that if the EU allows Estonia to continue without any artificial delays in the negotiations, that other countries could not simply catch up [with] two years of negotiations -- it has been very tough work."

Ukraine figures in the calculations of all three Baltic states. Latvian diplomatic mission Second Secretary Aldis Austers points out that under the EU's internal single market rules, the Baltic states will have to terminate their successful free-trade agreements with Kyiv. He says:

"We have certainly an interest in Ukraine, with whom we have a more favorable regime in agricultural trade than the EU has. What we are seeking is likely some form of compensatory measures when we terminate that free-trade agreement with Ukraine."

Lithuania's Pavilionis says Vilnius is in contact with Kyiv and is willing to give help wherever possible:

"As you know, we have historic ties with Ukraine and that's why we would like that country to find some new relations with the EU, because it is so important in our part of Europe".

Estonia's Kolbre notes that, in any case, there are several years to go before the trade accords with Ukraine must be ended. He says much depends on how quickly businesses in the Baltics and in Ukraine can adjust to the new conditions created by the imposition of EU tariffs. If the adjustment process goes well, he adds, not all the trade with Ukraine need be lost.