Yesterday's round of accession talks in Brussels between the European Union and second-wave candidate countries brought new evidence that the second wave is actually catching up with the first wave. Closing talks on additional chapters of EU regulations, second-wave countries Slovakia and Lithuania are now on a par with the two countries at the tail end of the first wave, Poland and the Czech Republic. RFE/RL's Brussels correspondent Ahto Lobjakas reports that with talks between the EU and the first wave bogged down over labor movement after expansion, the progress of the second wave might well be remembered as the greatest achievement of the EU's outgoing enlargement-focused Swedish presidency.
Brussels, 18 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- It took second-wave EU candidates Slovakia and Lithuania just over a year to erode the two-year head start of the slowest front-runners, Poland and the Czech Republic.
After yesterday's latest round of accession talks in Brussels, Lithuania is now even with both Poland and the Czech Republic in terms of policy areas covered. Out of a total of 31 so-called "chapters" of EU regulations, all three candidates have closed 15.
Slovakia has made even more spectacular progress. Closing four chapters yesterday to reach an overall tally of 16, Slovakia has leap-frogged Lithuania as well as both Poland and the Czech Republic.
Wrapping up yesterday's talks, Swedish negotiator Gunnar Lund, representing the current EU presidency, said Slovakia's and Lithuania's progress showed that the EU gave all candidates a fair chance.
"Each candidate country is judged on its own merits and on its own merits alone. This has enabled several of the countries which started negotiations only a year ago to progress very quickly in the negotiations. This is actually a striking feature, and we have now very good examples of countries making full use of the catch-up possibility -- the principle that was laid down [at the EU's Helsinki summit in December 1999]."
But Lund warned that yesterday's results should not be used as an indication of how future accession negotiations would turn out. He said competition would remain "free and fair."
Second-wave negotiators from Slovakia, Lithuania, and Latvia (with 13 chapters closed) themselves were quick to acknowledge that the number of chapters closed was in itself not a very reliable indication of overall progress. Equally important, they said, is the actual implementation of EU rules, along with adherence to the political entry criteria and the economic ability to withstand competitive pressure within the Union.
Negotiators from Slovakia and Lithuania conceded that their relatively high position in the current chapters table is due in part to the fact that the EU's talks with first-wave candidates, scheduled for yesterday and today, were postponed until 1 June. Both Poland and the Czech Republic expect to close at least one additional chapter in two weeks' time, and are thus likely to once again put themselves level with Slovakia.
Perhaps more important, none of the second-wave countries has yet opened talks on the two most complicated chapters -- those involving agriculture and the free movement of labor. They also have yet to start discussions on the complicated and costly measures demanded by the EU within the framework of the "justice and home affairs" chapter, which include preparations for the EU's future external borders.
Nevertheless, Slovakia's chief negotiator Jan Figel appeared up to the task of taking on the problems currently facing most of his first-wave colleagues. Most burning among these is the EU demand for a seven-year delay before East European workers are allowed to enter the labor markets of the present 15 member-states.
Figel called fears of an influx of workers exaggerated and said opening the EU's markets to the East was a historic responsibility for the Union.
"[The EU] member-states, which used the potential of [a] free and democratic Central Europe, used this [same] potential also for their economic growth and renewed dynamism. We think that from [an] economic point of view, open markets are the best answer for both sides of the [EU's visa-free] Schengen border, and that the less politics [there are] in this issue, the better for both sides."
The partial merging of the two waves of candidate countries will probably go down as the most notable achievement of the EU's enlargement-friendly Swedish presidency.
First-wave countries, however, are likely to be left feeling shortchanged, as a promised political breakthrough continues to remain beyond their grasp. Member-state Spain has persisted in blocking agreement on the free movement of labor, demanding guarantees on post-enlargement development aid. The new Italian government has likewise hinted that it will insist on further subsidies to southern Italy as a condition for EU expansion.
There were signs this week that the outlook for the front-runners could worsen still, with other members indicating they were worried about the costs of enlargement. France threatened to raise the issue of agricultural subsidies and Germany hinted at a push to lower its contributions to the EU budget, the highest among all current members. Given these signals, first-wave candidates are bracing themselves for a long stand-off.