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EU: Accession Talks With Candidate States Postponed

The European Union has postponed the next round of accession talks with leading East European candidates, originally scheduled for later this week, until 1 June. The delay affects the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Poland, and Slovenia. EU officials said the delay was "technical" in nature, but RFE/RL's Brussels correspondent Ahto Lobjakas says it appears to be linked to a disagreement with Spain over whether to impose lengthy curbs on worker movement after enlargement.

Brussels, 16 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The EU's Swedish presidency yesterday announced a delay of two weeks in accession talks with leading candidates for EU membership.

The delay affects the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Poland, and Slovenia -- the most likely early entrants into the EU from Central and Eastern Europe. The talks are now expected 1 June.

It wasn't immediately clear why the talks were postponed. But the delay follows a disagreement this week between Spain and other EU members on whether to impose lengthy restrictions on workers from candidate countries once their countries join the EU.

Spain is concerned that after the poorer Eastern countries are admitted to the Union it will lose its EU development aid. Spanish officials maintain, however, that they are not linking the issues of development aid and restrictions on workers, but are only seeking guarantees that aid levels will not be reduced.

Swedish Foreign Minister Anna Lindh denied the delay has anything to do with the disagreement with Spain. She said that highly technical, last-minute complications had forced the postponement.

Publicly, the candidate countries voiced a similarly relaxed point of view. Hungary's Foreign Minister Janosz Martonyi told our correspondent he was not worried.

"I think the reasons are of a technical nature. For us it's not a serious problem. Our main objective is to make progress and to close as many chapters [of EU regulations] as we can. So for us it's much more important that we are able to, hopefully, close a couple of chapters -- let's say in two or three weeks -- than to have the chief negotiators round in two or three days' time and not to close anything."

But Martonyi's remarks imply that either the EU or the candidates in question were not sufficiently prepared for the round of talks scheduled for tomorrow and Friday (17-18 May).

This was confirmed by various diplomats from candidate countries who -- speaking on condition of anonymity -- said the EU negotiators, counting on an early agreement on worker movement, had neglected to work on other chapters of EU law. To avoid possible embarrassment, the Swedish presidency asked leading candidates for a delay of two weeks.

The delay will not affect second-wave countries like Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, and Slovakia.

This means that tomorrow Lithuania will become the first of the second-wave countries to catch up with the first wave in terms of chapters closed. Lithuania will close talks on company law and the free movement of goods, raising its tally of closed chapters to 15 out of a total of 31. This puts it on par with first-wave countries Poland and the Czech Republic.

But Lithuania's parity will be short-lived, since both Poland and the Czech Republic plan to close talks on additional chapters next month. In real terms, second-wave countries still have some way to go in their efforts to catch up: They have not yet opened talks on all 31 chapters -- something that the first-wave candidates did last year.