The EU's Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen this morning warned candidate countries that the accession process has now reached a tougher stage. RFE/RL's Brussels correspondent Ahto Lobjakas reports that while Verheugen affirmed the EU's commitment to including new members, he also asked for patience.
Brussels, 19 April 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Speaking to an audience that included diplomats from EU candidate countries, EU Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen delivered a message of optimism tinged by cautionary realism.
Seeking to assuage growing fears among Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic that EU enlargement may be delayed, Verheugen said there has been no slowdown in the accession process or change of heart among member states. He said talks on the adoption by candidate countries of EU law are ahead of schedule and that the European Commission sees no reason for any delays.
But on the details of negotiating entry, Verheugen painted a slightly different picture, asking for patience. He said enlargement has entered what he called "troubled waters," where its speed depends on a number of different factors.
He said the EU itself needs time to consolidate. Negotiations with the leading six candidate countries are going to become increasingly more demanding. By the end of June, Verheugen noted, talks will have started on the contentious chapters of agriculture and free movement of people. All six first-wave candidates -- Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Poland and Slovenia -- want the EU's generous Common Agricultural Policy, which subsidizes farmers, to be extended immediately to their own farmers. That benefit would be enormously expensive for the EU. And the free movement of people worries Austria and Germany, who fear an influx of cheap labor from the East.
Verheugen said the first indications of a more definite accession scenario will emerge in the fall, when the commission releases its next progress reports on the candidate countries. He said those reports will probably further endorse the candidacies of the first-wave countries. And he did not rule out that one or more countries in the second wave -- Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Romania, and Slovakia -- could catch up.
Verheugen delivered an expectedly strong message of reassurance for Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, saying their accession in the first wave is a "political priority" for the EU. Slovakia's inclusion in that group would be desirable, Verheugen said, but he could give no guarantees.
Estonia and Slovenia are both "unproblematic," in Verheugen's term, and both belong firmly in the first wave. He said he personally would like to see the three Baltic countries enter the EU together, but for that to happen, Latvia and Lithuania would have to catch up with Estonia.
Reiterating longstanding EU positions, Verheugen said that who accedes first will be decided on each country's individual merit. No country will be made to wait for others once it is ready, at least not longer than a few months. He also said no country can expect "political rebates," no matter how big or strategically placed it is.
Verheugen did indicate that there might be financial constraints to catching up. A year ago in Berlin, when the EU carved up its budget for the period 2001 to 2006, it reckoned with the quick accession of six countries. The addition of a second wave means additional funds must be found or the existing ones redistributed. This is a very controversial issue among member countries, as last year's budget deal was a hard-fought compromise.
Accession dates are an issue on which the commission has become increasingly circumspect in the last six months. According to Verheugen, the successful conclusion and ratification of the Inter-Governmental Conference on internal EU reform is an unavoidable precondition. The other important criterion is the progress of the candidate countries themselves. Verheugen said that while all candidates meet the political criteria of democracy and the rule of law, only Cyprus and Malta meet the economic criteria.
Verheugen also briefly broached the issue of support for enlargement within member states and candidate states. He said a certain waning of interest has become evident both in Eastern and Western Europe.
The changed attitudes among voters in candidate countries could perhaps be resolved through better information campaigns. But opposition to enlargement within EU member countries would be a more serious threat. Verheugen said the fears of Austria and Germany are exaggerated, as studies predict no large post-accession influx to those countries from new Eastern European members.
But he did say that transitional periods might be necessary for new members before they participate fully in the fields of free movement of people within the EU.
Finally, Verheugen discussed possible future candidates. He said he could imagine Croatia catching up with Slovenia, Bulgaria and Romania at some future date. And he said any further enlargement beyond the current 12 candidates would be a more differentiated process, which could include options short of full membership. The EU in the future could extend a form of partial membership even to countries like Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia.