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East: EU Expansion Could Founder Over Laws

The EU accession process so far has been mostly "top-down" in practice, as governments in both member and candidate states have committed themselves to expansion and expected everything else to follow as a matter of course. But legal experts gathering at a conference in The Hague last week say this political aspect is just the tip of the iceberg. The hard part will come once candidate countries start considering -- and implementing -- difficult constitutional and legal changes.

The Hague, 25 September 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Members of the European Union know that bringing in new members from Central and Eastern Europe will require fundamental institutional, ideological and legal changes.

But the process seems less well understood in the Central and Eastern European countries themselves. At a conference of European legal experts held last week in the Dutch city of The Hague, participants warned the accession process runs the danger of collapsing as candidate states begin considering the difficult constitutional and legal effects of membership.

Before candidate countries join the EU, they must make fundamental changes in their constitutions. These changes in most cases need to be approved by referendum. To get such approval will not be easy considering that for many of the people in post-Communist countries, their hard-won sovereignty has special significance.

Anneli Albi, a researcher at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, and one of the participants of the conference, says EU accession will mean inevitable curbs on sovereignty:

"As a reflection of 50 years of [Soviet] domination, Eastern European countries protect sovereignty in their constitutions very strictly. Now in the process of EU integration, they have to introduce amendments in order to authorize EU membership. The EU means several restrictions to sovereignty, such as monetary union, [and the] direct applicability of [EU] law. Furthermore, [approximately] 75 percent of member state legislation is of EU origin, [also], there is [a] movement toward adopting [an] EU constitution. All this entails several restrictions [which] exceed member state sovereignty."

Upon joining the union, candidate countries will be required to transfer a number of important powers to the EU. This transfer is irreversible, as no EU treaty provides a "get-out" clause for malcontents. Candidates must recognize the supremacy of EU law over national legislation. They will also have to forfeit the right to issue money, as EU accession brings with it an eventual obligation to adopt the euro.

Some candidate countries also have other, more specific, constitutional concerns. In Poland, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria, land-ownership rights -- a sensitive issue -- will have to be extended to foreigners.

Conference participants also spoke of a "democratic deficit" in Central and Eastern Europe. Candidates will have to adopt about 100,000 EU legal acts before they can join the European Union. To make matter worse, the contents of these laws are non-negotiable.

What is more, the speed of the transformation process has forced hundreds if not thousands of laws to be enacted very quickly, leaving judges and lawyers little chance to keep up with the changes.

Vladimir Balas, who teaches law at the University of West Bohemia in the Czech Republic, says that since 1990 the parliament in his country has endorsed an average of two legal acts a day. He says this proliferation of legislation undermines legitimacy:

"We can be overburdened, we can have plenty of new laws, new legal norms. It is hard to learn what's in it, and if you don't know what the content of [a] law is, you cannot apply it properly because you are just lost in the amount of legal norms. [This] will decrease [the] efficiency of the law. [This] is harmful, and I think it is just the opposite of what is expected from this transformation."

EU Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen told participants the term enlargement "negotiations" is a misnomer since candidates must adopt the laws in full and cannot negotiate the content of any legal act. They only thing they can do is to argue for delaying the implementation of difficult or sensitive laws.

The one-sidedness of the negotiation and the enactment of EU legislation could provide potent ammunition for EU critics in any referendum. It may not be easy to convince voters to relinquish their sovereignty to join a union they did not create and over which they have little control.