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EU: Commission Progress Reports A Source Of Division

The progress reports on the Eastern candidate states released by the European Commission last week have left some candidates feeling they were not treated fairly. The Commission's attempt to rank the candidates according to their economic success is a particular bone of contention, causing discord among the 10 Eastern states. RFE/RL's Brussels correspondent Ahto Lobjakas reports.

Brussels, 15 November 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The European Union progress reports released a week ago made a tentative attempt to rank accession candidates according to their economic prowess. But instead of helping matters, the reports have created discord in the ranks of the leading Eastern candidate states.

The European Commission, which compiled the reports, attempted for the first time to list the 12 active candidate countries according to their perceived ability to withstand what was termed the "competitive pressure" of EU membership.

The two non-Eastern candidates, Cyprus and Malta -- both with fully fledged market economies -- were ranked highest. Estonia, Hungary, and Poland followed closely with near-term prospects for membership. The Czech Republic and Slovenia -- until now considered part of the first wave of candidates -- were relegated to a third level, both described as not having completed all essential reforms. Latvia, Lithuania, and Slovakia followed, with Bulgaria and Romania bringing up the rear.

The Commission reports were meant to bring clarity and predictability to the accession process. But their main result so far appears to have been the shattering of an already fragile unity among leading Eastern candidates.

This was especially clear yesterday, when negotiating teams from six candidate countries -- Estonia, Latvia, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia -- gathered in Brussels. It was the first time first- and second-wave negotiators turned up together, possibly intended as a sign from the Commission that talk of "waves" is meaningless and that every country will be judged purely on objective merit.

If so, the sign was received poorly by Slovenia which, together with the Czech Republic, has taken exception to its relatively lowly ranking. As Czech negotiators will not reach Brussels before Thursday, Slovenia's chief negotiator Janez Potocnik was left to make the case.

Potocnik says he does not doubt the objectivity of the Commission, but he believes the criteria used in assessing economic performance were faulty. The EU gave relatively strong weight to factors such as how open an economy is, how much direct foreign investment it has attracted and how many state assets it has sold off so far.

Potocnik says other major structural factors, such as the share of agriculture in overall employment and the EU's share of a country's foreign trade, were ignored. He says Slovenia would score highly on both of these counts:

"If you say a country is able to cope with the competitive pressures of the EU, of course you have to take into account all the structures of the economy...not only how much foreign direct investment, how open, and whether it has already privatized everything."

Estonia, on the other hand, scores well on openness of the economy, foreign investment and extensive privatization. Not surprisingly, Estonia has no fundamental problems with the Commission's approach.

The head of the Estonian delegation, Alar Streimann, says this is a long-standing attitude:

"We have never questioned really the objectivity and expertise of the European Commission in evaluating and assessing candidate countries' progress. This approach is also valid this year. What they have found -- if it is positive, we are happy, if it is negative, we accept the criticism."

The disagreements were not limited to first-wave candidates.

The front-runner in the second group, Slovakia, was smarting from being described -- together with Latvia and Lithuania -- as a "medium-term" economic prospect. Slovakia's chief negotiator Jan Figel says this ignores his country's relatively high per capita gross domestic product, or GDP, which he says is a far better criterion of economic performance.

According to Figel, Slovakia's per capita GDP for 1999 stood at nearly 50 percent of the EU average, while Estonia languished at about a third of the EU average, with Latvia and Lithuania even further behind.

This was not an approach that found much support from the Latvian chief negotiator, Andris Kesteris. Kesteris does not mince words:

"There are lies, big lies and statistics. It is difficult to assess because if you visit three Baltic countries and Slovakia, you wouldn't believe this statistic."

Kesteris says he believes Latvia's relatively low GDP figure has more to do with what he calls "conservative" accounting methods than any real differences in living standards between Slovakia and the Baltic states.