The European Union's Laeken summit over the weekend listed for the first time 10 candidate countries that the EU believes can enter the Union in a first wave in 2004. The list includes Poland, but not Bulgaria or Romania. Poland, however, is generally considered to be making only slow progress toward meeting the terms of membership. The question arises: Is Poland's inclusion in the list more a result of political pressures than objective criteria?
Prague, 17 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The Central and Eastern European candidates for membership of the European Union are sometimes compared to yachts at a sailing race. Under the so-called regatta concept, the yachts cross the start line at the same time, and then sail at their own individual pace toward the finish line -- which in this case means entry into the EU. In other words, no single yacht has to wait for the others to catch up. That's why the regatta idea is favored by well-prepared candidates like Hungary.
To carry the yachting analogy further, there is one yacht in the race that is much bigger than the rest. But its sails are in some disarray and its crew members can be seen on deck, not always doing much to move the boat along. Can this yacht really be a front-runner?
The vessel in question is Poland, by far the biggest country among the Eastern candidates, but also one with many difficulties in meeting the terms of membership. It has fallen behind the other leading candidates in entry negotiations with the European Commission. It has been given numerous nudges from Brussels about speeding up its preparations. In the latest complication, the Peasants Party, a junior partner in the ruling Polish coalition, has rejected concessions to the EU on the controversial issue of land sales to foreigners. And the coming year will see acrimonious negotiations between the two sides on key subjects like agriculture and regional funding.
But still, Warsaw retains its place in the queue. Of course, the declaration following this weekend's EU Laeken summit was cautiously worded, saying only that the 10 countries listed "could be ready" for early membership if they keep working hard.
The others on the list are the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, and Slovenia, as well as Cyprus and Malta. By contrast, Bulgaria and Romania are in a separate category, and are being offered "encouragement" to aim for a later entry date. The EU's enlargement commissioner, Guenter Verheugen, said last week Bulgaria would need the help of "magic" if it were to enter with the front-runners by 2004. Verheugen spoke of the "Harry Potter" approach, a reference to the young magician who appears as a character in the best-selling books of the moment.
But what magic is keeping Poland ranked first? At any rate, it is well-known that Germany believes that a first-wave expansion of the Union without Poland is unthinkable. EU officials have occasionally appeared to think the unthinkable, but have always returned to the idea that expansion without Poland would not be the right course. Berlin remains Warsaw's powerful backer, a supporter of the sort that Bulgaria and Romania do not have.
Leading Polish analyst Alexander Smolar, of the Stefan Batory Foundation in Warsaw, says there is no doubt that the decisions concerning EU enlargement are fundamentally political. He sees the technical criteria that Brussels is setting for membership in the EU as "artificial," and he says that Poland -- which is practically as big as all the other candidates put together -- is a "special case" in the enlargement process.
"From the beginning, it was quite obvious that all the negotiations were an attempt to transform a political decision into a technical process -- they were only really the preparation for the real decision, which must be a political one, because this is also about the future of the European Union, about its size, about its structure. Those are fundamental decisions which cannot be solved by a group of technocrats from both sides negotiating the conditions of entry."
As to the geopolitical link between Poland and Germany, Smolar says the question of Poland's entry into the EU affects the security of Germany itself.
"Germany -- from the very beginning, from 1989 -- wanted to push the frontier of the West as far as possible to the east, and -- to use a metaphor from the British writer and scholar Timothy Garton Ash -- to have a totally normal Germany, Germany should have the West on both sides of its frontiers."
Another commentator, Miraslava Grabowska of Warsaw University's Institute of Sociology, points out that polls show enthusiastic support for the EU among Poles, and that many have grown to expect early membership. She says any backtracking could be risky for the entire expansion project.
"It is really solid social support [for EU membership], but there is also solid social expectation to be in the first wave of enlargement, and if not, it is difficult to predict what will happen in Polish society and [in terms of] the social mood, and I think the disappointment would be really big."
She notes that if Poland is dropped from the first wave, it would be a "catastrophe" for the present pro-EU center-left government in Warsaw.
Taking a different perspective on the matter is Brussels-based senior analyst Nicholas Whyte of the Center for European Policy Studies. Whyte says Germany may indeed be a powerful friend of Poland, but that influence will only go so far.
"If the Poles were visibly very much further behind the others, the German support would make no difference -- you cannot sustain that in opposition to the facts on the ground -- and I think objectively, one has to say that some of the other applicant countries are also slipping behind. Poland is, of course, the one we look at the most because it is the biggest, but all of the others have their problems, and I think one could not say with 100 percent certainty that any of the 10 will have joined by 2004. They all still have work to do and they all still have hurdles to overcome."
With the new year about to begin, the coming 12 months will be crucial for all the candidates -- Poland included. The question remains as to whether Poland can set its sails right and cruise forward on a fair breeze.