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EU: Accession Talks Experience First 'Breakthrough'

Negotiators from the 12 European Union candidate countries were in Brussels yesterday and today for the first round of accession talks under the EU's current Swedish presidency. RFE/RL's Brussels correspondent Ahto Lobjakas reports that although a substantive breakthrough did take place, negotiators are already bracing themselves for tougher talks later this year -- particularly on the vexing issue of free movement of workers after enlargement.

Brussels, 30 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Three years ago today, the European Union formally opened accession talks with the first wave of East European applicants -- the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Poland, and Slovenia, accompanied by Cyprus.

Three years later, negotiators gathered in Brussels on Thursday and Friday agreed that the EU's current enlargement-friendly Swedish presidency has finally managed to achieve a substantive breakthrough in the talks. For the first time, they say, negotiations have moved from relatively straightforward technical issues to more difficult and sensitive matters involving transition periods and exceptions from EU rules.

The head of the Czech negotiating team, Pavel Telicka, who yesterday closed talks for his country on an additional two so-called "chapters" of EU regulations, summed up the change:

"Let's be frank, the negotiations are starting. The negotiations are starting -- so far it was little more than [an] imitation of negotiations. I think that the really serious chapters are coming now on the agenda."

The breakthrough in this round was universally acknowledged to be Slovenia's closure of talks on adopting and applying the EU's environment rules -- a first among candidate states.

Environment is among the most difficult chapters because the full implementation of EU standards puts a considerable financial burden on candidate states' budgets and businesses. To minimize costs, all candidates have asked the EU for numerous lengthy transition periods. In Slovenia's case, the EU accepted three transition requests involving delays in applying EU standards in urban waste-water treatment, fighting pollution, and standards imposed on the manufacturing industry.

Overall, Slovenia closed four chapters yesterday, which brings its total tally to 18 out of a total of 31 chapters that need to be concluded before accession. Cyprus and Estonia share the lead with 18 chapters closed, followed by Hungary with 17 and the Czech Republic and Poland each with 15.

Among the second wave of candidates, Lithuania made the greatest leap forward this week, closing six chapters. Together with Malta, it now leads the second group with 13 chapters closed. Latvia and Slovakia have closed 12 chapters, Bulgaria eight and Romania brings up the rear with six.

Some negotiators pointed out, however, that the race for closing chapters was not entirely straightforward. Latvia's Andris Kesteris said that seeking a swift closure of chapters was not always compatible with the best interests of the applicant.

"Yes, regrettably it [the number of chapters closed] does not always reflect [the] reality. It is easy to close chapters if you say we ask for nothing. We [that is, Latvia] ask for something, we try to defend [our] national interests, in the sense also that our philosophy on transitional measures is 'If we need [them], we ask.' We don't hide our real needs under political promises."

Pavel Telicka, the Czech negotiator, echoed this point in saying that the Czech Republic had purposely chosen to proceed more slowly, trying to achieve better agreements. He said the number of closed chapters would become much more important in the autumn, when the EU is expected to start drawing up a short list of better-prepared candidates.

Although not formally on the agenda this week, the issue of free movement of workers after expansion continued to exercise the minds of most negotiators. This issue is regarded as far more significant than any other chapter under discussion and is sometimes cast by candidates in make-or-break terms with regard to the entire enlargement process.

What sets this issue apart is that some current EU members are pressing for transition periods after enlargement in order to protect their labor markets from Eastern workers. The European Commission, currently working on a common EU position, is reportedly considering keeping EU labor markets closed to candidate workers for five years after enlargement, with present member states retaining the option of extending the delay for a further two years.

All candidate countries have formally rejected any transitional arrangements on workers' movement after expansion. They argue that transition periods would amount to a discriminatory withholding from new members of one of the EU's key freedoms.

The issue is expected to be resolved by the end of this year.