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EU: 'Second Wave' Shows Progress In Entry Talks

Negotiators from Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, and Slovakia -- together with Malta -- met European Union officials yesterday in Brussels for the second round of talks since they began accession negotiations two months ago. RFE/RL correspondent Ahto Lobjakas looks at the ground covered.

Brussels, 26 May 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The so-called Helsinki group of six countries involved in EU accession talks made good progress today in Brussels at their second deputy-level meeting with EU representatives.

Slovakia was given provisional clearance by the EU negotiating team to close six of eight chapters of EU rules opened in March, as was Malta. Romania, Latvia, and Lithuania all provisionally closed five chapters today, and Bulgaria closed four. All in all, accession talks will cover 31 chapters of EU regulations.

Although negotiations with the second-wave accession candidates have been open for no more than two months, certain divisions have become apparent. The number of chapters closed is not a very good indicator in itself. A better gauge is the country's declared ambition.

Overall, the front-runner in the Helsinki group -- so named after last December's EU Helsinki summit, where the six were invited to open membership talks -- is Malta. Like Cyprus in the first wave of aspiring countries, Malta is a special case, never having been part of the communist bloc. Like Cyprus, too, Malta has a fully fledged market economy and would be ready to join the EU very soon.

Among the Central and Eastern European countries, Slovakia, Latvia, and Lithuania all have declared their intent to join the EU at the start of 2004. Bulgaria and Romania have adopted a more cautious approach, fixing their sights on 2007.

The most optimistic among the Eastern candidates is Slovakia, which has said it would like to join the EU in the first wave, together with its neighbors Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary. The four nations make up what is known as the "Visegrad group." Slovakia's chief negotiator Jan Figel today reiterated his country's ambition:

"We have got the message that the 15 [EU members] are ready to close down [provisionally] six chapters with Slovakia. That's a very good result in the quantity, and quality, of course, because we have been invited not only to join the negotiations group, but also [because] Slovakia would like to catch up with the first group. These results today show that that's possible."

Slovakia, as a member of the Visegrad four, is also the keenest of the six Helsinki candidates to talk about accession in groups. Until recently, Latvia and Lithuania both expressed a preference for the three Baltic states entering the EU at the same time. But Riga and Vilnius are now more cautious. Given the evident strategic priority of the Visegrad countries -- repeatedly stressed by the European Commission -- both countries now fear automatic exclusion from the first wave.

The performances of Slovakia, Latvia, and Lithuania at the talks have so far been virtually the same. Slovakia has closed talks on chapters concerned with statistics, small and medium-sized enterprises, science and research, education, external relations and the EU's projected Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP). Both Latvia and Lithuania have closed the same chapters, with the exception of external relations, where they both still need a solution to the issue of free trade with Estonia.

Bulgaria and Romania form a group of two that lags behind the first three. Romania has closed five chapters, with the list largely being the same as Slovakia's. During the next half-year, Romania's progress is due to slow down. Bucharest expects to open talks on eight new chapters, whereas Slovakia, Latvia, and Lithuania will have opened talks on a total of 15 to 17 chapters by the end of the year.

Romania's chief negotiator, Aurel Ciobanu-Dordea, stresses that the number of chapters is not all that matters:

"The principle we have stated in February and March -- namely, that it is not important how many chapters you have opened on the negotiation table, but how quickly you are able to close negotiations on them -- [that] is important. It is more important to be able to negotiate quickly and promptly, and effectively, than to have too many chapters on the table."

This is a view shared by Bulgaria, which also emphasizes the relative speed of its progress compared with the situation three years ago. Sofia's chief negotiator, Alexander Boshkov, says that although Bulgaria has closed talks on only four chapters -- small and medium-sized enterprises, science, education and CFSP -- the French EU presidency starting in July has a choice of Bulgarian position papers proposing the opening of 11 new chapters. He says Bulgaria will need no major transition periods in any of the those chapters.

Like his Romanian counterpart, Boshkov also says Bulgaria is ready to start talks on competition policy. That problem is something the leading second-wave countries are not ready for at this stage.