Brussels, 17 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- A declaration adopted on 15 December by European Union leaders gathered at the royal castle of Laeken, in Brussels, lists for the first time those candidates the EU says it believes can wrap up enlargement talks in next year and join the EU in 2004.
The list contains 10 names -- Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia. These are the countries the document says "could be ready" if they maintain their present rate of progress in enlargement negotiations.
Bulgaria and Romania are mentioned in the same paragraph, but are not among the 10 the EU leaders specified, citing the "differentiation" principle. The text says the EU "appreciates their efforts" and "would encourage them to continue on the same course."
This is the first time the EU has officially named countries for the possible dates of accession revealed first at the Nice summit a year ago and confirmed again in Gothenburg in June. According to that strategy, leading candidates could conclude talks by the end of next year and join in time to participate in the June 2004 elections to the European Parliament.
The document also commits the European Commission to present member states, by the end of January, with detailed positions on what the enlargement would cost for the EU's agricultural and structural funds' budgets to 2006, when the current budgetary provisions will be renegotiated.
At the same time, the Laeken document makes no reference to the confident predictions made by the European Commission in recent weeks that enlargement by up to 10 countries would not force the EU to breach budget ceilings agreed for the period from 2000 to 2006, under the so-called Berlin agreement negotiated by EU leaders in 1999.
In a different move, EU leaders on 15 December launched a convention charged with the task of debating far-reaching constitutional and institutional reform. Candidate countries were invited to send representatives and participate in the work of the convention in the same manner as the current members. However, candidate representatives will not have full voting rights.
The reactions among candidate countries' leaders to the summit's decisions were generally positive.
Poland's Prime Minister Leszek Miller said he was glad Poland was mentioned among the 10 countries poised for EU entry in 2004. He said leaders of EU countries had offered him encouragement on 15 December, most of them confirming that Poland was again "back on track" after a prolonged hiatus in accession talks this year.
Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary said he felt an overall feeling of enthusiasm around the meeting table. He said all Hungary's objectives had been met by the 15 December document and that there was no need to have another discussion on the enlargement timetable. However, he added that Hungary does not interpret the naming of 10 countries as an indication that they will all join under the so-called "big bang" scenario, referring to the longstanding Hungarian position that front-runner nations should not be made to wait for laggards.
Both Miller and Orban indicated, however, that they would adopt tough negotiating positions next year, when talks will address the sensitive issues of agricultural subsidies and regional development aid.
Slovakia's Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda -- whose second-wave country has overtaken most of the erstwhile leaders in accession talks -- said he was "very happy" with the meeting's decisions, and that Slovakia had proved that the so-called "catch-up" principle works.
Bulgaria and Romania refused to be disheartened by the summit's conclusions. Bulgaria's Prime Minister Simeon Saxecoburggotski -- speaking before the final decisions of the summit were made public -- said he would be "disappointed" if his country was mentioned separately from the leading 10. However, he repeated that Bulgaria's recent decision to aim at EU entry in 2004 was a "realistic goal," adding that Bulgaria "should not be underestimated."
Romania's President Ion Iliescu suggested his country might also bring its accession date forward from the current 2007 to 2006, "or even 2005." He said Romania could close accession talks as early as 2003, but added that Romania's actual accession could only take place if the "economic conditions" were right.
Most candidates said they were not particularly worried about having no voting rights at the convention charged with conducting the "Future of Europe" debate in 2003. However, both the Czech Republic and Slovakia said they want the EU to delay making final decisions on constitutional and institutional reforms until after the new members have joined.