Accessibility links

Breaking News

EU: Current Chief Optimistic About Enlargement

The European Union (EU) is considering enlargement, probably in 2003. Twelve countries are now candidates for EU membership, including 10 from Eastern and Central Europe. And the foreign minister of Sweden -- which now holds the EU's rotating presidency -- says she expects new members will be admitted in two years. Our correspondent Andrew F. Tully reports.

Washington, 8 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Anna Lindh, Sweden's foreign minister, is in Washington to deliver an optimistic message about enlargement of the European Union (EU).

Lindh, whose country now holds the EU's rotating presidency, says a larger EU should be inevitable because it means a better life for everyone in Europe, on every level. She made her comments 7 March in a speech -- followed by a question-and-answer session -- at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.

According to Lindh, expanding the EU would encourage the spread of democratic governance, make Europe more politically and economically stable, and make its citizens safer from crime, terrorism, illicit drugs and even pollution. But her central theme was that of prosperity.

"We also have to remember that enlargement will make our continent richer by offering growth and prosperity. It will create the largest internal market in the world -- a market of more than 500 million consumers. A larger internal market also provides increased competition, and thereby it works in favor of the consumers."

The EU is made up of 15 nations. Twelve additional countries are now candidates for membership. Five Central and Eastern European nations are seen as leading candidates. They are the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Poland, and Slovenia. Five others from the region that also are candidates are Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, and Slovakia. Malta and Cyprus are also seeking membership.

Lindh said the negotiations with the candidate countries are going well. She said the Swedish government is using its current status as president of the EU to make sure that the organization will be ready to admit new members in 2003.

After Lindh's speech, one questioner asked about concerns that EU enlargement could dilute the continent's strength. She responded that as each new member joins the unions, it brings new ideas, new concerns, and new priorities. These, she said, can only strengthen, not dilute, the EU.

Several of those attending Lindh's address expressed concern that Russia may try to unofficially "veto" EU membership for some Eastern European nations. Already Moscow has objected to such countries' joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) on the grounds that they could become a threat to Russia. Although the EU is primarily devoted to commerce, not security, concerns have been raised in Russia recently that it would lose valuable income if many of its former trading partners now shift their focus to the West.

Lindh said it would be unacceptable for any nation to stand in the way of another's desire to become part of the EU.

"It's obvious that no one should have a veto when discussing either EU or NATO enlargement. Russia has not been critical -- not been negative -- concerning the EU enlargement, but has tried to claim sometimes that it will be negative for Russia."

She said that during Sweden's tenure in the EU presidency, the union has tried to demonstrate to Moscow that it is not a threat to the Russian economy. In fact, she said, EU policies can help Russia, although she gave no concrete examples.

Experts reached by RFE/RL agreed that the EU poses no real economic threat to Russia. One is Michael Moore, an associate professor of economics and international affairs at George Washington University in Washington. Moore says it is already too late for Moscow to try to bring some Eastern European countries -- particularly the Baltic states -- back into its economic sphere of influence. He laughed as he said:

"I think they're kind of out of Russia's sphere of influence."

Moore says Russia could not stop some former Eastern European nations from joining NATO, so it is unlikely that it will make a serious effort to try to keep them out of the EU. He says that to do so would be politically impractical. Besides, Moore says, he does not see the EU and Russia as serious competitors.

Another analyst, Michael Calingaert of the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, says he believes the competition between Russia and the EU will be more strenuous. But Calingaert does not view this competition as a serious economic threat.

Lindh's speech came the day after she met with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell. Accompanying the Swedish foreign minister were Javier Solana, secretary-general of the EU Council who directs foreign policy, as well as European Commissioner Christopher Patten. Among other things, the meeting focused on the Balkans, the European Security and Defense Policy, and weapons proliferation.

After the meeting, Powell repeated that the U.S. has no objections to European plans to set up its own defense force independent of but not in competition with NATO. He said the force could only serve to strengthen the Atlantic alliance, not weaken it.