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EU: Accession Talks Consider Free Movement

Correspondent Ahto Lobjakas reports from Brussels that the European Union and the "first wave" of largely Eastern candidate countries are finally getting down to the most difficult issues of accession, including the free movement of people.

Brussels, 29 May 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Talks between the European Union and the most advanced group of aspirant countries continued on Friday at EU headquarters in Brussels. Negotiators from the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Estonia, Slovenia, and Cyprus took part in the discussions.

After more than two years of talks, our correspondent reports that the negotiations should have been routine. Yet they were far from that.

Negotiators officially opened talks on the first of the two most sensitive issues -- known in EU jargon as "chapters" -- to be discussed: the free movement of people. Discussions on agriculture will begin next month.

The free movement of people is one of the four core freedoms listed in EU treaties. Yet it is one that some EU members seem loathe to extend to newcomers, at least not immediately.

Member states like Germany and Austria fear an influx of East European workers once they open their borders. They also fear that their border regions might attract thousands of what are sometimes called "commuters" -- those who live in their home countries but work across the border, where the pay is better.

Both countries have demanded that the EU position paper on this issue contain a reference to what they describe as their "sensitivities," and indicate the need for some form of transition period. This has been resisted by other members who support the view the EU cannot deny new members one of its basic freedoms.

As a result, the EU position paper on the free movement on people presented remained vague. It stressed the need for more information to be gathered both by the 15-nation union and by candidate countries.

The Polish and Czech chief negotiators expressed their satisfaction that the EU paper did not contain any references to "transition periods," during which the free movement of people would be restricted. Czech representative Pavel Telicka summed up most of their concerns when he said transition periods are not the main issue now. He says what matters is whether the EU has a meaningful position:

"The more appropriate question would be whether we would have appreciated the common position to have been more concrete. The general answer vis-a-vis all chapters would be 'yes.' On the other hand, let's be frank and admit to ourselves that some of the chapters we have now opened are really in the category of the more difficult and more substantial ones, and it might take some time for the EU to come to a final and concrete common position."

Telicka's approach was not shared by the Hungarian negotiator, who found that the EU position on the free movement of people was what he called "deficient" and did not constitute a satisfactory basis for talks. He said he would have liked to have seen a clear statement that the basic freedoms of the EU would be extended to new members without delay. The same view was expressed by the head of the Estonian delegation, who said the EU reference to certain "sensitivities" was what he termed "emotional" and not backed up sufficiently by rational argument.

Problems with formulating a common EU position on more difficult issues appear to be more serious than the European Commission had anticipated. The commission has promised to offer first-wave candidates an accession timetable by the end of this year. But in an interview with RFE/RL, EU Commissioner for Enlargement Guenter Verheugen said this might not be possible:

"What I can see already is that the member states are not ready for an accession scenario, because they will need more time to negotiate the more difficult chapters than I have anticipated, or the candidate countries have anticipated."

The first-wave negotiators gathered in Brussels on Friday all expressed hope that present difficulties can be overcome. They all also affirmed their intention to conclude the accession talks before the end of