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EU: Verheugen Assures Candidates Of Fair Play

EU Commissioner for Enlargement Guenter Verheugen says the EU has not lost its desire to enlarge -- in spite of fears by some aspirant countries to the contrary. In an interview with RFE/RL's Ahto Lobjakas yesterday in Brussels, he says enlargement is "irreversible" and all candidates will be treated equally according to merit.

Brussels, 26 May 2000 (RFE/RL) -- EU Expansion Commissioner Guenter Verheugen is a man on a mission: enlarging the European Union.

He says despite concern from some aspirant countries the union has lost its will to expand, expansion is something Europe cannot do without. He tells our correspondent it would be a "catastrophe" if the enlargement process were to fail:

"I think it is absolutely clear that the process of enlargement is irreversible. Nobody in Europe believes that it will not happen. Everybody knows that it would be a catastrophe if the process should fail, and there is a strong, strong agreement that we have to do it as soon as possible, but at the same time we have to it in a high quality."

Quality is a notion that allows for varying interpretations. Verheugen acknowledges this. He says he understands that candidate countries want more clarity on when negotiations will conclude and when accession will finally become possible.

He says the answer to this is simple: when they have met all the Copenhagen criteria: democracy, rule of law and a functioning market economy. Also, the full range of EU legislation -- the so-called acquis communautaire -- must not only be adopted, but credibly implemented. Verheugen says all candidates want full membership, not a half-way house. This means new members must be able to assume not only the rights conferred by membership, but also the obligations.

Tackling the issue of whether deeper integration desired by some EU members would threaten enlargement, Verheugen says it is natural that enlargement would trigger a wider debate on the directions in which the EU itself is heading.

But he says any move toward greater federalization of the union, such as outlined by German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer two weeks ago, would not prove a barrier to any aspiring countries.

Polish officials are especially concerned that by the time it enters the EU, the union will have developed an unreachable federalist core.

Verheugen says Fischer told both himself and the Polish Foreign Minister Bronislaw Geremek this week in Berlin that Fischer's federalist vision is not designed to be exclusive to a hard core of long-time EU members.

Addressing the debate on accession in groups, Verheugen says enlargement in waves is desirable because it eases the ratification process. Therefore, reasonable groups will have to be formed.

But he strongly rejects suggestions the EU might prefer the Visegrad Four (the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland in the first wave of talks, Slovakia in the second) over the Baltic states (where Estonia in the first wave, and Latvia and Lithuania in the second). The individual achievements of these countries in implementing EU laws will decide who accedes when.

"I have never said and I would never say that there is a difference in timing between the Visegrad countries and the Baltic countries. I must repeat -- because this is the most important point here -- the guiding principle is the principle of merit."

This means that if a country wants to catch up with the front-runners, it must equal them in merit. Verheugen says this is naturally something the EU would help second wave countries with, helping them boost their objective qualifications.

Speaking of detailed accession schedules promised at the Helsinki Summit last December by the end of 2000, Verheugen says it is now likely that the Nice summit in December will produce no timetables. He says EU member governments feel they are not ready for more detailed accession scenarios. This can only happen once negotiations on the more difficult chapters of agriculture and the free movement of people and services have been concluded. Negotiations on all these chapters will have started by mid-June, but any results are not expected before early next year.