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Lithuania: Verheugen Hints At First-Wave EU Membership

Brussels, 24 July 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The EU's enlargement commissioner, Guenter Verheugen, told Lithuania's new Prime Minister Algirdas Brazauskas in Brussels today that he hopes Lithuania will be among the first candidates to join the EU.

Speaking to journalists after meeting Brazauskas, Verheugen said he and Brazauskas had agreed to speed up negotiations so that Lithuania could be among the first wave of accessions, expected to join before the next European Parliament elections in 2004.

"I personally believe strongly that Lithuania has both the potential and the political intention to do it and the commission certainly supports it." Lithuania has presently closed talks on 18 out of a total of 31 negotiating "chapters," and has overtaken its first-wave neighbor Poland, which is currently on 16 chapters. The next rounds of accession talks will take place on 27 July.

However, Verheugen said -- reiterating a concern that the EU considers common to all candidate countries -- that Lithuania still needs to improve its administrative capacity to ensure adequate implementation of EU laws.

Verheugen and Brazauskas also discussed Kaliningrad and the future of the Ignalina nuclear power station, both issues that Verheugen said were "unique" to Lithuania, and which the commissioner mentioned in tandem with the problems regarding the country's administrative capacity.

Brazauskas seemed to confirm that the EU and Lithuania fail to see completely eye-to-eye on the Ignalina issue, at least.

A little more than a year ago, Lithuania staged a relatively successful international donors' conference for the Ignalina plant, at which the EU contributed around $140 million (165 million euros) until 2006 to help finance the closure of the plant's two reactors, which the EU considers unsafe. For its part, Lithuania adopted a law on closing Unit 1 (reactor) by 2005, as well as a national decommissioning program for the whole installation.

Yet Brazauskas today told reporters that the decommissioning of the Ignalina plant still remained a "pertinent issue" which would have to be resolved over the course of remaining accession negotiations. He said it still remained unclear how exactly the entire plant would be decommissioned, or how "the financing problem" would be resolved.

In February, the EU indicated concern over the issue after a meeting with Lithuania's foreign minister, saying in a statement that although it welcomed the law on the closure of Ignalina's Unit 1, it expected "further tangible actions towards the implementation of the closure commitments."

Neither Verheugen nor Brazauskas was willing to offer a detailed elaboration of problems associated with Kaliningrad, which will become a Russian enclave surrounded by the EU once both Poland and Lithuania join the bloc. According to Brazauskas, however, the complex issues that will arise -- like that of the future visa regime between Kaliningrad and the EU, as well as the inevitable trade and transport-related problems -- would have to be resolved "as soon as possible."

Verheugen also took the opportunity to assure Brazauskas -- a former communist party official who now heads the leading coalition partner in Lithuania's government, the Social Democrats -- that Brussels has full confidence in his reformist credentials. When prompted by a Slovak journalist to say what separates Brazauskas from Slovakia's former prime minister, Vladimir Meciar -- also a former communist -- Verheugen said the comparison was "unfair." He said he would stand by his earlier warning that Meciar's return to office would threaten Slovakia's progress in accession talks, whereas Brazauskas was a "successful former president," who had initiated Lithuania's drive for integration into the EU.