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EU: Progress Reports Welcomed By Candidate Nations

Eastern candidate countries seeking membership in the European Union have broadly welcomed the European Commission's annual reports on their progress. The reports encourage the candidates while also pointing out areas where improvements are needed. For the front-runners, the report process is drawing to a close, as they expect to finish their negotiations by the end of next year.

Prague, 14 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Candidate countries for membership in the European Union have welcomed this year's progress reports issued by the EU's Executive Commission.

The annual reports, released yesterday, detail each candidate's advances toward meeting the EU membership criteria in the past year -- and also their remaining shortcomings.

Foreign Minister Janos Martonyi of front-runner Hungary said it is his "very firm opinion" that this has been the best report so far on his country.

Prime Minister Adrian Nastase of Romania -- which could be called a straggler in the EU accession process -- was equally enthusiastic. He said that for the first time, Romania is being treated as a "credible partner." The Czechs expressed "satisfaction," and even the Poles -- who have some serious problems in their accession process -- said the reports create what they called a "clear perspective."

The EU's enlargement commissioner, Guenter Verheugen, said in a speech presenting the annual reports to the European Parliament that the 10 leading candidates are all on target to meet the timetable for first-wave membership by 2004.

In his speech, Verheugen touched on one of the main concerns of the reports: "Something that is really new in this report is that we've concentrated very hard on the last really large problem that exists...namely, to be certain that the new members are able to meet the administrative obligations of the European Union at the time they are admitted."

Verheugen said it's clear that, at the moment, government departments of future EU members are not yet able to meet standards for oversight and implementation of the EU's own rules and regulations.

Other underlying concerns mentioned in the reports were the need for stronger action to fight pervasive corruption, improvement in the treatment of minorities, and the need for continued political and economic reform.

But analysts see the underlying tone of the reports as positive. They say this reflects the EU's understanding that eastward enlargement -- the subject of years of effort -- cannot be further delayed without the process losing credibility both among present EU member states and among applicants themselves.

Already, opinion polls show that support for EU membership is ebbing in the East, and that in the West there are doubts and fears among the public about expansion. As Steven Everts, a senior analyst with the Center for European Reform in London, puts it: "My impression is that the Commission very much wants to keep the show on the road, and on track and on timetable. That is clearly the underlying political calculation."

However, the reports refrain from giving any country a firm commitment about enlargement, instead making clear that this can be done next year at the earliest.

One of the country having problems with achieving the target date of 2004 is Poland, the giant among the candidates. It is perceived as having fallen behind the other front-runners, and negotiations have not even started yet on burning issues like agriculture.

But since political establishments in the West seem to consider first-wave enlargement without Poland unthinkable, the real task of the next year will be to get Poland in shape. In a sense, the other leading candidates are held ransom to Poland's progress. Negotiations must be completed by the end of 2002 if the entry date is to stand.

As analyst Everts puts it, there is a lot of what he called "shadow boxing" now going on between the European Commission and Poland.

"They [the Poles] know they are just too big and too important to be excluded from the first wave, so there are countervailing pressures here. I think we are going to see more pressure put on Poland to make further progress, particularly from Germany next year, hopefully allowing everybody to declare victory one year from now."

A leading Polish analyst, Jacek Boratinsky of the Stefan Batory Foundation in Warsaw, agrees that it's going to be a year of difficult negotiations, particularly as Poland's financial crisis has complicated matters.

But he says the decision to admit Poland will be a political one, rather than one based on technical grounds: "To a large degree, I believe it is really a matter of a political decision for the EU countries, and I do not really think that it's a matter of the major inability of the accession countries to conform to the EU requirements. I think very much that the report of the [European] Commission confirms that observation."

Boratinsky says he believes the political decision has already been made to allow Poland to be part of the first wave in 2004 -- regardless of its compliance with the details of restrictions on sugar beets or milk.