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EU: Second-Wave Eastern Candidates Caught In 'Date Fever'

Two weeks ago, EU Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen raised expectations in the five East European nations that are part of the first wave of expansion candidates. He said that 2003 was a realistic date for the admission of the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Poland, and Slovenia -- two years earlier than EU officials had previously indicated. Now, the same optimism has begun to trickle down to the five Eastern candidate countries in the second wave -- Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, and Slovakia. Leaders of second-wave negotiating teams met in Brussels yesterday with their EU counterparts, and most of them emerged from the talks more hopeful than before.

Brussels, 25 October 2000 (RFE/RL) -- What is known as the European Union's "fever for dates" yesterday caught up with Latvia, Lithuania, and Slovakia, leaders of the second group of eastern candidates. Unlike Bulgaria and Romania, which aim for entry in 2007, the three have said they want to join by the start of 2004. But they have also said they are intent on catching up with the first wave, which hopes to join the EU one year earlier.

Visiting Brussels yesterday, the chief negotiators for Latvia, Lithuania, and Slovakia all said their countries were capable of joining the EU together with the first-wave countries. All three plan to conclude accession talks in 2002, which makes entry in 2003 at least a theoretical possibility.

Latvia's chief negotiator, Andris Kesteris, expressed great optimism for the near future. He said Latvia was ready, together with the first-wave countries, to begin tackling complicated requests for transition periods in areas like agriculture and environment.

"As soon as the [European] Union considers [similar] requests made by countries [ahead] in the negotiation process, we would expect that our requests are taken into consideration and analyzed and answered by the [EU]."

This, Kesteris said, would demonstrate that the EU meant what it said when it promised second-wave countries they can catch up with the first wave, despite the existing two-year gap in entry talks.

Latvia and Slovakia are now also demanding a clear signal about their status from the EU's Nice summit in December. Until now, the Nice summit had expected to produce accession scenarios only for first-wave countries, all of which have opened talks on all 31 chapters of EU legislation.

Latvia and Slovakia say they should be given similar scenarios. Both countries expect to open more than half of all the 31 chapters before the end of the year. More important, Slovak and Latvian negotiators said yesterday the EU will have at its disposal by December the Slovak and Latvian negotiating positions on all 31 chapters. Lithuania is likely to present all its position papers early next year.

Slovakia's chief negotiator, Jan Figel, says this means the EU has no excuse for not including his country in any scenarios that might emerge from Nice. He says Slovakia, like the first-wave candidates, has presented its positions in the 31 key areas. Although the EU has not closed more than 14 chapters with any country, a fairly clear idea of its stance on most chapters can be deduced.

Figel says:

"In many ways, in many details, these [EU] positions comply or are similar [to] Slovakia's requests."

Figel noted that second-wave countries are benefiting from following in the footsteps of the first wave. Countries like Slovakia and Latvia have moved further during the first year of talks than did Estonia and the Czech Republic two years ago. That's because, Figel said, many problems are shared by all candidates and most solutions can easily be adapted to any and sometimes all of them.

Both Latvia and Slovakia's negotiators denied, however, that their speedy progress indicated that the EU has been more lenient with them than with first-wave candidates. On the contrary, Latvia's Kesteris said, EU negotiators have learned a great deal from first-wave negotiations and are therefore more thorough in grappling with the second wave.

Kesteris also said that although first- and second-wave negotiators meet regularly, cooperation with the front-runners is mostly limited to the exchange of information. He particularly regretted the lack of political coordination of negotiating strategies with Latvia's first wave neighbor Estonia.

Contrasted with the new exuberance of Slovakia, Latvia, and Lithuania, both Bulgaria and Romania appear resigned to their status as the rear guard of the second wave. Although not far behind the leading three in terms of EU chapters closed, both appear untouched by any date fever.

Bulgaria's and Romania's accession target date, the beginning of 2007, means they will need to conclude entry talks by 2005. This leaves them with less to worry about in the short term, and also relatively unconcerned about the results of the Nice summit.