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EU: Leaders Debate Enlargement Timetable

Gothenburg, Sweden; 15 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Contradictory information emerged today at the EU summit in Gothenburg following morning discussions, which dealt primarily with enlargement.

Swedish Foreign Minister Anna Lindh, representing the EU's outgoing presidency, spoke after the morning meetings. She said EU leaders agreed that Ireland's rejection last week (June 7) of the Nice Treaty had left candidate countries in need of a "strong signal" that the enlargement process was irreversible:

"We have seen big support for the development [of enlargement], and also big support, to be more precise, on a timetable building on [the] Nice [summit] and the [European Commission] roadmap [for negotiations]. What it can look like is too early to say. Discussions will continue, but what I think is very important is the clear commitment to the enlargement process."

The Nice Treaty -- supporting the Commission's enlargement "roadmap" -- was adopted by the EU last December with the specific aim of preparing the EU's institutions for the admission of up to 12 new members. According to the "roadmap," negotiations with the most advanced candidates could be wrapped up by the end of 2002.

The Nice summit, however, did not undertake a direct and binding commitment to that timeline, but merely expressed the "hope" that the first countries to accede could participate in the next European Parliament elections, scheduled for June 2004.

In the absence of an unequivocal commitment, candidates -- with the support of the EU's Swedish presidency -- have since indicated they would like to see the Nice conclusions "firmed up" in favor of a clearer timetable.

However, ministers and spokesmen from a number of influential EU countries today made it clear that support for an enlargement timetable that goes beyond the guidelines laid out in Nice is limited.

German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer said it was too early to offer candidates firm dates for the end of accession talks, saying there have not been sufficient "results" in the negotiations for the EU to commit to a deadline. He said Germany wanted to wait until at least November, when the European Commission will produce its next annual progress reports on candidates' progress as well as their ability to implement EU law.

France appears even more opposed to a "more precise" timetable. A spokeswoman for Prime Minister Lionel Jospin said the time had not yet come to adopt a definitive timeframe. She said that agreeing to close talks as early as the end of 2002 was "inappropriate" and could lead to what she called "collective enlargement" -- bringing in less-advanced candidates not yet ready for accession.

The spokeswoman also said Jospin fears such indiscriminate enlargement would endanger the EU's core goal of greater integration. This opinion, she added, is shared by French President Jacques Chirac, who believes the EU should find a way to enlarge "without self-destructing."

Observers and diplomats say these negative comments point to a certain apprehension concerning Poland. France, a main benefactor of the EU's generous agricultural subsidies, sees Poland -- with its large farming sector -- as a direct competitor. South European countries like Spain, Portugal, and Greece fear that a new member the size of Poland would draw away most of the development aid they presently receive from the EU.

Subsidy-dependent EU members are also hoping to avoid a fixed-closure date so as not to limit their negotiating options next year, when candidates will deal with issues -- like agriculture, regional aid, and future budget contributions -- that have important financial implications.

These concerns also appear to explain why a number of smaller and relatively richer EU members oppose giving candidates a clearer timeline. Although a member of the first wave, Poland has made slow progress in the enlargement talks. Second-wave countries like Slovakia, Lithuania, and Malta, all of which started EU entry talks two years later than Poland, have closed a similar number of chapters.

As one diplomat from a small EU member country put it: "Anything could happen" between now and the end of 2002. It is widely felt that a definitive 2002 deadline for talks would grant a number of relatively underqualified candidates with a virtual "carte blanche" -- a guarantee of accession no matter what their progress is like.

EU members will hammer out their final message to candidates tomorrow afternoon. The message is likely to confirm the Union's commitment to enlargement despite Ireland's rejection of the Nice Treaty. But it is almost certain to fall short of establishing a definitive timeline.