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EU: Spanish Premier Tours East Ahead Of Union Presidency

Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar has been touring Eastern Europe as part of preparations for Spain's coming presidency of the European Union. He has visited Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Romania amid worries over whether the accession timetable for the Eastern candidate members can be kept on schedule.

Prague, 4 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Spain's Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar is now on an Eastern European tour to discuss enlargement of the European Union in advance of the Spanish presidency of the Union.

Madrid takes over the six-month rotating presidency on 1 January, and Spanish officials acknowledge the task of pressing forward the accession negotiations with the 10 Eastern candidates will be "enormous."

Aznar has already visited Poland and the Czech Republic, and today he is in Slovakia and Romania. While in Bucharest, he is doubtless responding to last week's appeal from Romanian Prime Minister Adrian Nastase for the EU to give his country more encouragement in its efforts to join.

More generally, Aznar will be setting out Madrid's priorities for the presidency. Spanish officials and diplomats have been quoted in press reports as expressing shock about the workload, and expressing doubts about whether the present schedule can be kept.

These officials say that not enough progress has been made on the 31 chapters of EU rules that each candidate must complete. It's hoped to wrap up the negotiations with as many candidates as possible by the end of next year, to allow them to be admitted as full EU members by 2004.

London-based analyst Steven Everts of the Center for European Reform says that the difficulty lies in the fact that the hardest chapters have been left until now, when time is short.

"We have left the hardest chapters until last, perhaps for solid reasons, but people got a bit excited, particularly in the candidate countries, saying, 'We have closed so many chapters, say 19 or 20, and look how swimmingly all this is going.' But of course all the hardest questions still have to be sorted out, and they include agriculture and budgetary questions. All that has still to be solved next year. So yes, it is extremely demanding."

The head of the Spanish enlargement negotiating team, Miguel Bauza, say he's confident the presidency will cope, despite the fact that the chapters are getting harder. He says the main goal of Madrid's presidency is to reach common internal EU positions on the two hottest issues, agriculture and regional funding policy. Only when a common position between all 15 members is achieved can negotiations go forward with the candidates.

"They have to be tackled during our presidency, [these difficult issues,] and we hope to do so, and we hope to start [already] in January. The [EU's Executive] Commission has said it will give us the information notes and [other documentation] by the end of January so that we can start on the internal debate on them, and during our term, we hope we will be able to reach common positions on those chapters, even if they are difficult. We all know they are difficult."

Getting the agreement of EU states on how to deal with agriculture and regional funding in the enlargement process may actually be more difficult than dealing with the candidates on the same subjects.

In one of them -- regional and structural funding -- Spain's vital interests are involved. It presently collects billions of dollars in such funding, which is offered by Brussels to regions whose gross domestic product (GDP) is less than 75 percent of the EU's average.

Everts points out: "Currently Spain is a huge recipient of those funds because it has a number of regions, particularly in the south, which fall under the 75 percent [rule] and which qualify for those funds; it's equally obvious that if you bring in countries whose GDP is much lower than Spain's, then the Spanish regions will not qualify any longer."

Spain, like its neighbor Portugal, is fighting to retain as much funding as possible, but as Everts says, Aznar wants his country to have a place at the top table of the EU, to be among the most influential powers, and therefore he knows it's inevitable that there will be a considerable reduction in Spanish receipts after the EU enlarges.

Everts sees the issue in terms of what transition arrangements Spain, Portugal, and also Greece can win for themselves, to ease the cut in funding.

There have been some suggestions that because of the competition for regional funding, Spain is less than wholeheartedly in support of EU enlargement. Bauza denies this, saying Madrid is fully committed to taking in the easterners on the best schedule possible.