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EU: Verheugen Sending Mixed Message On Enlargement

EU Enlargement Commissioner Guenther Verheugen is seeking to put recent sought controversies behind him, saying speedy enlargement of the EU is inevitable. Yet the messages he sends to candidate countries appear to become more cautious with each passing month. RFE/RL Brussels correspondent Ahto Lobjakas examines the issue.

Brussels, 13 September 2000 (RFE/RL) -- After some recent hiccups, EU Enlargement Commissioner Guenther Verheugen is again firmly "on message." The message is that enlargement is the only chance for this generation to achieve lasting peace and stability in Europe.

This is the message Verheugen says he has been sending to both candidates and EU member governments since taking office almost a year ago. Nevertheless, Verheugen has been sending the message with particular vigor after an interview with the German daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung (Sept 2) in which he seemed to suggest Germany needs a referendum on enlargement. The idea was widely seen as something that could seriously slow down the whole expansion process.

Speaking yesterday in Brussels at the Center for European Policy Studies (CEPS), Verheugen says he is optimistic that the first accessions will take place before the Commission ends its term in office at the start of 2005.

"I am basically very, very optimistic that the Commission can fulfill what it has promised and what is the priority of this Commission -- to complete the bigger part [in other words, take in most of the candidate countries] of the project [of enlargement] before our term expires."

Verheugens optimism has subtly changed during his year in office. Last year, in the run-up to the Helsinki summit, he repeatedly said he could envisage the first accessions as soon as 2003. Verheugen, together with the President of the European Commission, Romano Prodi, then also supported the setting of "target dates" for accession for leading candidates.

This caused concern in a number of EU capitals, and the Commission message has subsequently been toned down. Verheugen now carefully avoids talk of "target dates."

Yesterday, he told his audience in Brussels that it is too early to talk of concrete dates, denying that his views have changed.

"My position on target dates is well known and it did not change. I think at the right moment, we should do it. 'At the right moment' means as soon as we have sufficient information and as soon as we can in all responsibility foresee when a country is really ready for accession. It is too early today."

According to Verheugen, information on a country's readiness for succession can only be acquired when negotiations reach substantive issues in areas like agriculture and the free movement of people. These are issues likely to generate the most controversy.

Verheugen says the time has come for tough political decisions for both sides. He predicts that accession negotiations will enter their substantive phase already during the current French presidency, which ends in December.

Verheugen also indicates that even if most candidates fulfill the political and economic criteria, which were set as a pre-condition for their accession at the EU Copenhagen summit in 1993, they still lack the resources and skills to implement the range of EU legislation necessary for membership.

This, says Verheugen, is something the EU now considers as central as the Copenhagen criteria, a third "cluster" of accession criteria, as he puts it.

"I do not blame candidate countries for weaknesses in [this] respect because everyone should understand it is not possible to transform communist functionaries overnight [into] civil servants [who] are fit to meet the conditions of [a] democratic administrative culture. You have to find the people, you have to train them, you have to pay them."

Verheugen did not say how long he thinks these problems could last, and as his earlier remarks show, he expects the difficulties to be resolved by 2005.