At the fifth annual economic forum for Central and Eastern Europe, discussions of the countries' economies turn inevitably to how those economies will change when they enter the European Union. RFE/RL correspondent Tuck Wesolowsky reports from Salzburg on the continuing frustration of candidate countries about the lack of a firm date for membership.
Salzburg, 30 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- It's the one question EU aspirants ask again and again: When? When will they be admitted to the exclusive European club? And it's a question European Union officials have grown adept at dodging.
So it's not surprising that the question reared its head again at the fifth Central and Eastern European summit, organized by the World Economic forum, and this year held in Salzburg, Austria.
Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovenia, Estonia, and Cyprus entered membership talks in March 1998. They have set themselves their own target entry date of January 1, 2003 -- a date felt by most EU officials to be overly ambitious.
Slovakia, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Romania, and Bulgaria joined the first six in talks in March of this year, and some are anxious to catch up with the front-runners.
But EU officials have been coy about naming a date. Caught in the middle is the EU commissioner in charge of expansion, Guenter Verheugen. He irritated EU member countries in May when he said he might recommend that EU leaders set "an accession scenario" at their summit in Nice this December.
The commissioner has waffled in public statements over whether EU leaders should set a target date for ending talks with front-running candidates.
In Salzburg, however, Verheugen called on EU member states not to drag out the process.
"I call upon the member states: do not delay the process, do not set new conditions. We have conditions, we cannot change the rules of the game. So therefore don't set moving targets. Don't introduce a system of second-class memberships. If there has to be flexibility -- and I agree there has to be, because Europe will be much more different, and there are different needs for integration and different capacities to do it -- then that system of flexibility must be open to everybody."
Lithuanian Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius best expressed the frustration felt by Central and East European states in their bid to join the EU.
"I think Lithuania as well as other candidate states wish to see a clear and more specific enlargement prospect. It is important for us to know the time of accession of new members or enlargement scenario options. So far, we have received no answer to the question whether new members will be admitted in small groups or in one big wave, whether the accession of new members will take place only on the basis of their individual preparations for membership, whether attention will also be paid brought to the existing regional relationship and enlargement scenario motive wholly on pragmatic grounds."
Kubilius also warned that further footdragging on the part of the EU could risk squandering the public support that the process now generally enjoys in the aspirant countries.
Austrian President Thomas Klestil said both current and aspiring members states have underestimated the potential pitfalls surrounding EU enlargement. He says the process has also prompted some to question the direction and depth of further overall European integration.
That debate was underscored earlier this week, when French President Jacques Chirac proposed speedier integration by what he called a pioneer group -- probably Germany and France. EU aspirants were left wondering where they would fit in under such a scheme. Klestil says:
"It is quite obvious that the process of European enlargement has reached a critical stage. The sheer magnitude and complexity of the exercise has already added to the pressure on both sides it has also triggered a debate on further European integration and the final scope of a larger European Union. What is ultimately at stake is the future of Europe and its capacity to meet the challenges of the 21st century."
But Central and Eastern European officials from first-wave and later-wave countries alike said at the conference that enlargement will be a win-win scenario. They say it will mean stability and prosperity for the entire European continent.
Summing up that sentiment was Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski, whose country is still a distant outsider in the EU membership sweepstakes.
"We would on day like to become members of the European Union for only one reason: market economies [do] not attack each other, but they protect or encourage each other."
Few at the Salzburg conference would disagree that an enlarged EU would mean further harmony for a continent that has seen its share of bloodletting this century. How to achieve it, though, is still uncertain.