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EU: Reports Envision Possible Enlargement By 2003 Or 2004

The European Commission has published its third annual series of EU progress reports on candidate members. The reports are accompanied by a strategy paper, which says the most advanced candidates could close accession talks in 2002, preparing the way for accession as soon as 2003 or 2004. RFE/RL's EU correspondent Ahto Lobjakas reports from Brussels.

Brussels, 9 November 2000 (RFE/RL) -- With the publication of this year's progress reports, the European Commission has come out firmly in support of a speedy enlargement. For the first time, it suggests a detailed timetable for accession talks, saying the most advanced candidates could conclude negotiations in 2002.

Presenting the reports to the European Parliament, the president of the European Commission, Romano Prodi, and the EU enlargement commissioner, Guenter Verheugen, stressed the EU must keep its "double promise" made at the Helsinki summit last December.

It was agreed at Helsinki last year that the EU should wrap up its internal reforms at the Nice summit this December to be able to accept new members by the end of 2002. And the EU promised to conduct accession talks as fast as possible.

Verheugen says this year's strategy paper accompanying the country reports represents first and foremost the wish of the commission to uphold these promises.

"[T]he Commission's strategy paper [accompanying the annual country reports] adheres strictly to the enlargement strategy agreed at the Helsinki summit [last December]. We remain strictly committed to the Helsinki principles. We sketch a way, a road, how to keep to the timetable agreed by the [EU] member states at Helsinki. It was agreed at Helsinki that by the end of 2002, the EU should be ready to welcome new members by the end of 2002."

The commission is now proposing that EU member countries -- which determine the agenda and pace of accession talks -- divide into categories the remaining chapters of EU legislation to be negotiated.

The easiest chapters, involving little or no financial commitments for the EU, would be tackled first -- in the first half of 2001. Difficult chapters like agriculture, regional policy, and budgetary provisions would be last to be closed in the first half of 2002.

The timetable, although firmly committing the EU to enlargement, is not likely to satisfy any of the first-wave countries: the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Poland, Slovenia, and Cyprus. All six want to close accession talks in 2001 to be able to join the union at the start of 2003.

Nevertheless, the timetable leaves open the possibility the first candidates could join the EU by the end of 2003 or 2004. This would assume the negotiations are concluded in 2002 and that the ratification process takes about 18 months.

Some EU governments have recently said they would prefer a slower pace, saying 2005 would be a more realistic date of accession.

Both Prodi and Verheugen said the composition of the first wave is still open and depends on individual progress. However, yesterday's reports produce for the first time a tentative attempt to rank candidates according to their economic prowess.

Malta and Cyprus head the list and are described as functioning market economies able to withstand competitive pressures in the EU. They are followed by Estonia, Hungary, and Poland, all of which should reach the same condition in what the report calls "the near term."

The Czech Republic and Slovenia are placed on the third rung. Although close to being able to cope with competitive pressures, they need to undertake further reform. Latvia, Lithuania, and Slovakia should attain similar status in "the medium term," whereas Bulgaria and Romania do not now qualify as functioning market economies.

Surprising weight is given to political criteria. Although all candidates, with the exception of Turkey, are considered functioning democracies, Verheugen says problems remain:

"In terms of the political [accession criteria], there are the problems of corruption and economic crime, but also the question of [illegal] trafficking in women and children, the living conditions of the Roma in a number of countries, and unfortunately still the problem of orphanages in Romania."

The reports also challenge a number of commonly held assumptions.

Poland, far from being the potential black sheep of the first wave, receives a glowing review.

The Czech Republic -- another potential frontrunner -- is said to suffer from a long list of political problems, ranging from the treatment of Roma to shortcomings in administrative and judicial reform.

Among the second wave candidates, Slovakia, Latvia, and Lithuania come out the best. As opposed to Bulgaria or Romania, mired in economic problems, all three appear to have a real chance of catching up with the first wave.