The European Union will soon issue its annual reports on the progress towards accession of the Eastern candidate countries. The largest candidate, Poland, has slipped behind in its preparations to join the Union by the earliest practical date, which is generally accepted to be 2004. The report may even provide an indication of whether Poland can hold its place in the first wave of entrants. The other leading candidates, who fear being held up by Poland, are watching closely.
Prague, 2 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Officials of the European Union are now preparing the annual reports on the progress of the candidate countries toward meeting membership criteria. Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen is expected to unveil the reports by the middle of next month.
The occasion brings with it a certain amount of diplomatic tension, as the reports detail faults as well as strengths in the ongoing preparation of the 12 candidates. Analysts see this year's reports as likely to be couched in fairly severe language, as a reminder to the candidates that time is running short if the informal timetable of 2004 for the first admissions is to be met.
This year the center of interest is Poland, the largest candidate, which has been perceived as falling behind the other front-runners and is now even seen in some circles as a threat to the whole enlargement timetable.
Already last July, a senior Swedish official (Gunnar Lund) with the then-EU presidency referred to the "problem" with Poland, and he pointed out that Poland was "slipping behind" the others.
The concern among the other leading candidates is that Brussels could delay the planned 2004 entry altogether if Poland is not ready. Germany in particular takes the view that a first wave of expansion without Poland does not make political sense.
The strongest candidates, notably Hungary, have insisted that entry dates must be based on the merits of the individual applicant. As diplomat Zoltan Becsey of the Hungarian mission to the EU, reaffirmed:
"We stick to this, that everybody should be judged on their own merit, that was said in Helsinki [at the EU summit there] several times, and it was also agreed among the first-wave countries and the Visegrad countries (the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia) that everybody will progress at their own pace."
Given the expectations and anxieties, the executive EU Commission is in a delicate position, one made more difficult by the fact that Poland is going through a major change of government as a result of last month's parliamentary election. The exact policy toward the EU of any new government which emerges in Warsaw cannot be foreseen. As London-based analyst Heather Grabbe of the Center for European Reform puts it:
"The Commission is in a difficult position now whereby it is trying to judge candidates on the same criteria, but of course they want to give a political signal at the same time to the different countries. And that makes it difficult [in Poland's case] because they have to work out what the new government is going to do, in terms of EU integration."
Polish officials defend the country's performance as not as bad as is sometimes painted. Sixteen of the 31 chapters of the 'acquis communautaire' -- the EU's body of rules -- have been successfully negotiated. Counselor Vladislav Pizkorz of the Polish mission to the EU, says:
"The process is underway. In some areas we are on the right track, in some areas we are a little bit behind schedule, [but] in general the speed of adoption of the European legislation [by Poland] has been very quick. Most of the legal acts have been already adopted, very few are left. The only problem now is that implementation of this legislation is costly, and taking into account the budgetary difficulties which Poland faces it might be very difficult to implement fully this acquis."
Analyst Grabbe in London takes a similar view that Poland has not done too badly, even in implementation, and she thinks this will be reflected in the coming report on Poland. She says:
"I think actually that the [EU] Commission is in some ways relatively favorably inclined [toward Poland], because although Poland has slowed down in terms of closing chapters over the past year, its implementation capacity has actually got quite a lot better, they have been working quite hard at that, and in many respects if you are concerned about implementation and enforcement of the 'acquis communautaire,' then they are moving toward living up to their promises."
As to the possibility that Poland could be dropped from first-wave entry altogether because of its problems, Grabbe says that is a possibility, but that it's not likely to happen. It could become a reality if Warsaw fell too far behind the other front-runners, so that German influence was no longer able to bridge the gap.
Apart from Hungary, another country which is confident of its progress towards accession is Estonia. Ehdel Halliste, the press counselor at the Estonian mission to the EU, says:
"Throughout the years, the progress reports have been very fair to us, and always positive, never negative. Yes, they have pointed out a few drawbacks, or where we are lagging behind, but usually they have been very good."
If all goes according to plan, there will only be a few more of the annual progress reports to be faced before Estonia and the other front-runners are inside the EU.