Although European Union leaders have repeatedly indicated that the best-prepared candidate countries could join the EU in 2004, significant ambiguities have resurfaced in recent months. Politicians in France, Germany, and other member states have variously doubted whether the timetable can be met, hinted at further conditions, or seemed to disregard agreed rules of procedure when speaking out for the accession of national favorites. RFE/RL Brussels correspondent Ahto Lobjakas yesterday discussed the issue with British Minister for Europe Peter Hain -- whose country has so far stayed out of the fray.
Brussels, 23 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Britain is seen in most candidate countries as a staunch -- if somewhat distant -- supporter of enlargement.
Yesterday, Britain's minister for Europe, Peter Hain, robustly reasserted the U.K. position, saying that Britain was "a champion of enlargement." He said the British government was committed to the timetable agreed to by all EU leaders at the Gothenburg summit in June, which stipulates that sufficiently prepared candidates can wrap up entry talks by the end of 2002 and join the EU in early 2004.
Yet Hain also clearly indicated that no amount of political goodwill can disguise the fact that accession talks have entered a new phase where the candidates must make difficult choices. A number of EU member states -- like Germany, France, Spain, and others -- have made it clear they want their interests respected. If candidates hold out against such demands, they risk delaying their accession.
Nowhere is this clearer than issues that concern money -- more precisely, new members' prospective access to the EU's generous development funds and agricultural subsidies. The biggest current beneficiaries of these funds -- Spain and France, respectively -- have indicated they will resist cutting their share to make more funds available to poorer newcomers.
Thus, as the European Commission has already provisionally decided on the issue of agricultural "direct payments," long "phasing in" periods are necessary before new members gain access to the same levels of support enjoyed by current members.
Hain says transitional arrangements are inevitable: "Obviously, any process of accession to a new institution as important as the European Union involves transitional arrangements, and these will have to be finalized and negotiated, and that is part of what'll be done over the next year in respect of structural funds and in respect of agriculture."
But, Hain says, rather than worry about subsidies, candidates should think of the wealth of benefits that accompany EU membership. He says joining the "biggest, most advanced, modern single market in the world" would offer candidates unprecedented opportunities: "For countries that are in the European Union, every country that has joined the European Union has benefited in terms of greater prosperity, more jobs, greater security, better environmental standards, and better action to fight cross-border crime. These are the issues, the practical benefits for day-to-day life."
Politicians in Germany, France, and some other countries have in recent weeks increasingly questioned the agreed-on conditions for enlargement. Edmund Stoiber, one of the leaders of Germany's Christian Democrats, now in opposition, suggested that the EU needs further constitutional reforms before it can admit new members. Germany's Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said enlargement would be "unthinkable" without Poland. France's Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine threw in doubt accession criteria, saying backmarkers Bulgaria and Romania should be admitted together with the front-runners.
Commenting on this, Hain said Britain remains committed to the Gothenburg timetable and the conditions attached to it. Referring specifically to Poland -- a former front-runner whose accession talks have stalled badly this year -- he said Britain would oppose any "excuses" to delay enlargement.
"We can't delay enlargement for artificial reasons. There are set procedures laid down for the accession process and that goes through a number of stages, including negotiating and then closing all the different chapters. We want to see Poland in the first wave. It's a natural member of the European Union, but it has to proceed down exactly the same procedures, according to exactly the same rules that every other accession state has to abide by."
Hain went on to say that he was convinced the new Polish government would be able to speed up the country's progress toward accession and avoid any delays.