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EU: Eastern Candidates Awaiting Key Progress Reports

The slow-running process of expanding the European Union is enlivened this week by the publication of the European Commission's annual reports on the progress of eastern candidates. Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen has said the reports, which are due out tomorrow, are not meant to be seen as "exam results," but that's how they are treated, even by sober diplomats of the countries involved. A good assessment will bring smiles and celebration, negative comments will produce gloom. Stakes are high, in that a positive report can help a candidate into the front row for membership. Correspondent Breffni O'Rourke reports.

Prague, 7 November 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Central and East European candidate members of the European Union are looking forward to publication tomorrow of the annual reports detailing their progress toward accession to the Union.

The European Commission's eagerly awaited reports are considered an indicator to which of the candidates could be in the first wave of expansion in the next few years.

The reports cover all 12 candidates with whom negotiations are already underway, and there will also be a document on Turkey, which is a formal candidate but is not yet included in negotiations.

EU Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen has said the purpose of the reports is not to form any kind of ranking among the candidates, but is rather to help them to better pursue reforms and overcome persisting shortfalls.

However, it's perhaps natural that the atmosphere around the candidates' diplomatic missions in Brussels at such a time can resemble that at school when exam results are about to be announced. Not that there is too much to fear on this occasion, according to correspondents in Brussels who have seen leaked documents. They report the Commission praises the efforts of most of the candidate countries, and holds out the prospect of membership for the best of them as early as the end of 2002.

An exception to the praise is Romania, which apparently comes in for criticism over its slow economic reforms and failure to improve conditions in orphanages.

Poland, the biggest Eastern candidate, will be particularly relieved by a positive report, in that it has been criticized during the past year for slowness in meeting reform targets. There had even been hints that Warsaw could lose first-wave status. The press attache at the Polish mission in Brussels, Malgorzata Alterman, however is confident:

"We have clear signals that the Commission is going to underline the progress that Poland has made over the last several months, and yes, it will be a positive report for Poland."

But if practically all the candidates are going to receive praise, does this mean that the whole exercise is aimed at just encouraging the candidates, rather than moving things forward in substance? Alterman does not think so. She says:

"It's a very important report, on the basis of this report the European Union [member] countries will be deciding [at their December summit] in Nice when and how to speed the process of enlargement, and for the last months we have been telling the Commission and the member states that we are not very happy with the speed of enlargement."

In remarks made recently to the European Parliament about the coming reports, Commissioner Verheugen said candidates have made progress across the board in meeting the EU's political criteria. He said none of the applicants appear in danger of sliding back into authoritarian structures. However, he said there are unresolved issues, particularly relating to national minorities, such as Roma. And he also said that corruption, which he called a cancer, is rising in candidate countries.

As to economics, Verheugen said there has also been good progress, and that now virtually all the candidates can be regarded as market economies, even if these are in some cases fragile.

But he cautioned that there remains much work to be done by candidates to adopt and implement the EU's body of rules. He referred to weak public administrations and judicial systems which do not yet provide sufficient legal certainty.

This year, the issuing of the progress reports comes at a moment of extra competitiveness among the candidates. The front-running group of eastern candidates has long consisted of Hungary, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Slovenia, and Poland. But recently several second-wave countries, namely Latvia, Slovakia and Lithuania challenged their lead, saying they, too, are capable of joining at an early date.

The other countries in the second-wave group, Bulgaria and Romania, have to be content to plod along with a more distant target date for joining.