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EU: Accession Picture Muddled After Talks

Negotiators from East European candidate countries gathered in Brussels this week to take stock of their progress in EU accession talks. But the picture that emerged was one of confusion in spite of the EU's recent attempts to add clarity and predictability to the process. Leading candidates remain unsatisfied with what's on offer, while some of them have hit unexpected snags. RFE/RL Brussels correspondent Ahto Lobjakas reports.

Brussels, 17 November 2000 (RFE/RL) -- A week after the publication of the European Commission's progress reports, the enlargement process proceeds in fits and starts.

The enlargement strategy the Commission appended to this year's reports was meant to bring predictability to the process. The strategy offered a timetable for discussing the remaining chapters of EU legislation for the front-runners, indicating a possible end of talks for the most advanced candidates in mid-2002.

Yet the strategy was almost immediately questioned by leading candidates. Foreign ministers of the first-wave candidates -- Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Poland, and Slovenia -- met in Budapest this week (Wednesday) and said the process envisaged by the Commission was not fast enough. All six countries want to join the EU by January 1, 2003, and an end date for talks of mid-2002 would be too late for that.

Hungary's chief negotiator Endre Juhasz says the expansion strategy is "wishful thinking" as long as it is not yet endorsed by the EU's 15 member governments. He told reporters yesterday in Brussels:

"We accept the strategy as it is and we are ready to work with the commission and the member states to implement the strategy. The first precondition is that the member states approve the strategy [at the Nice summit in December] and give it status, and we would like to see a status which is as strong as possible."

Juhasz says the EU commission's strategy has met with different responses in different EU-member capitals. Some members like Sweden say it is too cautious, while others say the dates offered are too ambitious.

In talks this week in Brussels, most front-runners made progress in negotiating at least one or two aspects of EU law and harmonizing EU standards with local practice ("closing chapters" in the EU's language).

Negotiators, however, admit success was limited to non-controversial issues. More contentious issues like land sales to foreigners -- which Poland, for example, wants stopped for 18 years after EU membership -- must wait until next year.

There was a notable exception to this routine. The round of talks scheduled for yesterday (Thursday) for the Czech Republic was cancelled after Austria blocked discussion of energy and environmental issues. These issues have a clear bearing on Austria's concern with the Czechs' Temelin nuclear power station in southern Bohemia.

Austria's representatives in Brussels told RFE/RL that Vienna is not prepared to continue talks on energy before the Czech Republic agrees to an international panel to review safety at Temelin.

Prague insists the reactor is safe and that the issue should not play a role in its negotiations with the EU. Czech officials have already appealed to the European Commission for help, but the commission's assistance is limited since enlargement talks are technically conducted with the 15 EU member countries. The commission has no jurisdiction over Austria.

Progress was also noted in the second group of applicant countries, made up of Slovakia, Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, and Romania (as well as Malta). Bulgarian officials had special reason to be satisfied. The country concluded two chapters -- in other words it reached agreement on two broad areas of European Union law. Slovakia, which has concluded 10 chapters in all, is still viewed as the front-runner among the second tier. But at least in terms of progress in harmonizing legislation, Bulgaria has now drawn level with Latvia, and both are ahead of Lithuania and Romania.

The result was surprising considering last week's progress reports relegating Bulgaria, with Romania, to the bottom of the economic league tables. Both were described as not yet being "functioning market economies." Bulgaria's target date for EU membership is January 1, 2007, while Latvia, Lithuania, and Slovakia are aiming to join on January 1, 2004.

Bulgaria's chief negotiator Vladimir Kisiov says thoughts of readjusting the target date for entry are premature. He acknowledges that the number of chapters closed is only half of the story.

"We have enough homework, we have to fulfill our homework, let's see if we are fulfilling everything that is necessary internally. [EU membership] is a question of preparation, implementation of the acquis [EU legislation], not only closure of chapters."

But diplomats say that Slovakia, Lithuania, and Latvia are likely to push hard next year, and that Bulgaria's present elevated position may not last.