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EU: Analysis -- Enlargement Commissioner Sounds Notes Of Caution

European Union Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen delivered a keynote speech before the European Parliament in Strasbourg today. The speech preceded a parliamentary debate on the progress of candidate countries toward membership and took an unexpectedly somber look at the current status of the enlargement process. Verheugen suggested that a number of major problems remain unresolved.

Brussels, 4 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Although European Union leaders affirmed at their Gothenburg summit in June that leading candidate countries are now less than 18 months away from concluding accession talks, EU Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen seems not to have heard that positive message.

In a speech today in Strasbourg, Verheugen adopted a surprisingly gloomy stance toward EU enlargement. He dwelled at length on as-yet-unresolved controversies and delivered an unpleasant message to most candidate countries, who no doubt hoped the next four months under the EU's Belgian presidency would be "business as usual."

In his speech, Verheugen seemed intent on highlighting every potential stumbling block for enlargement, and seldom suggested solutions.

He began with the Nice Treaty on institutional reform, saying that, although imperfect, it contains the "indispensable conditions" for enlargement. Verheugen said that the rejection of the Nice Treaty by the Irish referendum in June must be taken seriously by the EU. He went so far as to warn that to ignore the result would mean risking that "the ship would soon founder on the rocks."

Verheugen's concern went beyond the institutional reforms necessary for enlargement that the Nice Treaty attempts to achieve. He pointed to a growing distrust of enlargement among the EU's citizens and said the EU needs more than a "communication strategy" to guarantee the acceptance of enlargement.

Implying a link between the debate about the future of Europe and the debate over the EU's future borders, Verheugen said that if not the Nice Treaty, then something else must establish what he called the "necessary link" between the deepening and the widening of the EU.

Although Verheugen never explicitly confirmed it, he now seems to think that enlargement cannot take place unless current levels of public support increase significantly.

His words also seemed to suggest a geopolitical limit to expansion of the EU. This was implicit in Verheugen's suggestion that 10 candidate countries expecting to join in 2004 represent around 75 million citizens, which he says is less "dramatic" than the 185 million made up by the 10 along with Bulgaria, Romania, and Turkey.

Looking at the candidates themselves, Verheugen raised the specter of the so-called "implementation condition." He said a strategy report will soon study the candidates' ability to "implement and apply [community law] in its entirety." It remains unclear how implementation will be measured. Simple legislative endorsement of EU law will not be enough. The condition is all the more obscure as most member countries themselves lag behind in implementing some EU directives. Many candidates fear that this criterion could be used to explain delays in the enlargement process should the EU's political or institutional will start to flag.

Verheugen also warned of tough choices ahead. For some candidates, EU membership would require giving up age-old regional contacts. Alluding to candidates like Poland and Slovakia -- which will have to set up visa regimes and systems of tough checks on their borders with Ukraine -- Verheugen stressed that the ability to ensure the security of the EU's external borders is one of the essential conditions for accession.

Verheugen also said that candidate demands for agricultural subsidies are "already causing enormous problems for some [current member] countries." He implied that nations such as Spain or France fear they could be forced to relinquish some of their benefits and will fight to avoid this.

Verheugen also delivered another warning to candidate countries when he said that the EU will keep a close eye on their treatment of ethnic minorities. He observed that the situation of Russian minorities in the Baltic states "is continuing to improve," while the integration of the Roma remains "a thorny and difficult issue." The latter problem has been an issue mainly in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania.