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EU: French Presidency Promises Candidates Steady Progress

France assumed the EU's six-month rotating presidency in July, but the Brussels summer recess brought with it an effective hiatus in the EU's accession negotiations with candidate states. This month has seen a resumption in the dialogue. RFE/RL correspondent Ahto Lobjakas looks at what aspiring EU members may expect from the French presidency in the coming months.

Brussels, 15 Sept 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The EU's French presidency has quietly brought the enlargement process into a new -- and slower -- phase.

EU member governments and the European Commission have in the course of this year made clear that the Nice summit in December will not produce any target dates or scenarios.

This message was most recently relayed by EU Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen, who on Tuesday said it was too early for to specify dates because the EU did not have sufficient information on the readiness of even the leading candidates.

The task of setting up a mechanism for gathering this information has fallen to the French presidency.

To get a picture of the assessment mechanisms, as well as the results they're expected to yield, RFE/RL spoke with French representative Odille Roussel, who chairs the European Council working group on enlargement.

Roussel says that central to the France's approach is something which the French presidency terms "scoreboards." Scoreboards will be drawn up in November together with the annual European Commission Progress Reports, which chart the general economic and political progress of candidate countries.

Roussel says these scoreboards will provide a picture of the progress of negotiations:

"Scoreboards are compilations -- country by country -- of their requests for transitional periods and the state of play on those requests, and of the state of play in negotiations, how many chapters of EU legislation are closed, and monitoring of the situation in candidate countries."

Based on the scoreboards, the French presidency -- together with the European Commission -- will prepare "roadmaps" to set out how problems identified in the scoreboards can be resolved. The roadmaps will permit EU leaders at the Nice summit to arrive at an overall view of the enlargement process.

Roussel says the French presidency will focus mostly on the first wave of candidate countries: Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Poland and Slovenia.

All of them will get full roadmaps as they have opened talks on all but two of the total of 31 chapters of European Union regulations.The second tier of candidate countries-- Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Romania and Slovakia -- will get partial roadmaps according to the number of chapters they have opened.

In the absence of individual accession dates and scenarios, the only quantitative indicator of progress that the first-wave countries will have is the number of chapters they have closed. Estonia and the Czech Republic have closed 13 chapters, Slovenia 12, Poland and Hungary 11. Perceived stakes are high and all candidates are trying to close as many chapters as possible.

Roussel says she won't comment on the issue of who might close how many chapters, saying what matters is not the numbers of closed chapters but the actual implementation of EU regulations.

"It would be silly to some extent to have a political objective of a number of chapters to be closed because that is not the point of the game. The game is not making a present to Poland, Hungary or anyone."

Roussel says that first wave candidates can expect more "substantive" talks from the French presidency. She says talls will start on concrete requests for exemptions from EU legislation in fields like transport, energy, taxation, and environment.

Progress will be slower in agriculture, which is one of the most controversial areas. Roussel indicates that as the talks are complex, they won't probably be concluded before the end of the French presidency.

The chapter on the free movement of people is equally politically charged, as it deals with the access of Eastern workers to EU labor markets. Germany and Austria have demanded transitional curbs on worker movement when new members join.

Roussel doesn't rule out that during the French presidency, accommodation could be reached with at least some candidate countries on the question of workers crossing national borders. She says Estonia, Poland and the Czech Republic have already submitted replies to initial EU positions in this area.