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2001 In Review: EU Candidates Poised For Accession Endgame

Although 2001 saw European Union accession talks address the first "substantive" issues, the prevailing feeling in Brussels this December is that the enlargement endgame has yet to begin. Progress made this year in closing negotiating chapters will mean little when EU members start seriously discussing the real costs of enlargement early in 2002. Although the 14-15 December EU summit at Laeken in Belgium confirmed that up to 10 countries will likely join in 2004, real decisions on the timing and content of accession deals can only come after the French and German elections, from May to September of 2002.

Brussels, 18 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- European Union accession candidates cannot be blamed for a case of deja vu when they think back to a year ago, December 2000.

Certainly, enlargement negotiations have progressed at a steady pace this year, and most second-wave candidates have doubled the number of "negotiating" chapters they have closed, even if the leading candidates have not moved ahead quite as fast.

This year also saw what European Commission officials like to call the first "substantive" successes. Most candidates have by now wrapped up talks on chapters involving the EU's four core freedoms -- those stipulating the free movement of goods, services, people, and capital -- but also of energy, taxation, and the environment, among others.

In some chapters, the candidates won their first concessions from the EU in the shape of transitional arrangements. In others -- most notably "the free movement of people" chapter -- the EU, in turn, exacted from most candidates the painful concession of up to a seven-year freeze on worker movement.

Yet, the situation in Brussels has not moved significantly beyond what was promised at the Nice summit in December 2000. Then, EU leaders expressed the hope that leading candidates could finish accession talks by late 2002 and join the EU in time to participate in the June 2004 elections to the European Parliament. The Goteborg summit in June firmed up that message without, however, making the promise definitive. The recent Laeken summit added the names of 10 candidates to the timetable, but once again stopped short of giving candidates iron-clad guarantees of accession.

This was evident in the way British Prime Minister Tony Blair summed up the Laeken promise when speaking to the British House of Commons: "It now looks increasingly likely as if 10 new countries will join the European Union in 2004, and we welcome that. Their accession will contribute to peace, stability, and prosperity in Europe -- ours as well as theirs."

Enlargement as such did not take center stage at the summit. Most of the EU leaders' time was spent on issues such as the bloc's common defense policy, antiterrorist measures, and the "Future of Europe" debate.

The last of these three issues gave a particularly clear indication of how far the EU as a whole remains from fully embracing the candidates. When EU leaders decided to set up a special convention for next year to debate the direction of further constitutional and institutional reforms, they also invited candidate countries to send their representatives to the forum. However, while the candidates' representatives will have the right to speak out on any decisions, they will not be able to vote on or block them. In 2003, the convention will hand the results of its discussions over to an "Intergovernmental Conference" of EU member governments that will decide which suggestions to put into practice.

Candidates can participate in the work of the conference, but -- again -- they are unlikely to be given the right to vote on decisions. To make sure this remains the case, some EU members have already said they would like to launch the "Intergovernmental Conference" in late 2003 -- well before the first candidates join.

EU leaders readily admit that further constitutional and institutional reform is necessary to adjust the workings of the Union so that it can function after enlargement. Blair described the reform process on 17 December by saying, "[It] is obvious that the European Union cannot -- with 25 and more members -- work in the same way, with precisely the same constitution as it has with 15. Decision-making will need to be streamlined. EU laws will need, increasingly, to take the form of framework legislation with the details of implementation left to member states."

Meanwhile, the rules of the enlargement process itself are still questioned from time to time by individual EU member states. Thus, French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine suggested in November that all 12 negotiating candidates be admitted at the same time. Earlier in November, the annual progress reports released by the European Commission had made it clear that while up to 10 candidates might be ready to join in 2004, Bulgaria and Romania would not be among them.

Vedrine's comments were interpreted by most observers -- and by candidate governments -- as implying that the others might have to wait for Bulgaria and Romania to catch up.

Although Vedrine appeared to retract his suggestion just before the Laeken summit, Bulgaria had already surprised observers by announcing in early December -- taking heart from the French foreign minister's comments -- that it also would aim at a 2004 entry. Although the Laeken summit did not list Bulgaria as one of the 10 leading candidates, and European Commission officials have described Bulgaria's ambition as "highly unlikely" to succeed, Bulgarian Prime Minister Simeon Saxecoburggotski said on 15 December that he has not given up hope.

Hungarian Foreign Minister Janos Martonyi -- who was in Brussels for another round of accession talks just before Laeken -- spoke for most leading candidate nations when he indicated that Budapest would resent having to wait for any laggards: "The main point is that we all -- I mean those who are ready -- should become members by 1 January 2004, and I believe this is perfectly feasible. The real point is that these are objectives which must be maintained. And when it comes to the basic issue, if it [does] come at all to this issue -- which of the two factors should be given priority, the date or, let's say, a larger group of countries -- then clearly the date must prevail."

However, concern over such details appears premature considering that no candidate has yet opened talks on the crucial "money matters" -- agricultural subsidies, regional development aid, and future budget contributions. The European Commission is scheduled to draw up a report by the end of January on how to accommodate new accessions without breaching budget ceilings set for 2000-06. The ensuing talks will be complicated by forthcoming elections in Germany, France, Ireland, and Portugal.

An even more controversial issue is what will happen during the next budgetary period between 2007 and 2013. Agricultural and development aid expenditures currently account for 80 percent of the EU budget. Major beneficiaries -- led by France and Spain, respectively -- are keen to avoid giving up their shares to poorer newcomers. Efforts are already underway to prevent this.

Well-informed European Commission sources have told RFE/RL that the commission is considering a 10-year "phasing-in" period before candidates gain full access to agricultural subsidies. Most candidates are likely to react with dismay to any such plans, which would tie their hands at the next EU budget review in 2005-06 and effectively deny them some of the prerogatives of membership.

Finally, 2001 witnessed a mushrooming of potential snags for enlargement -- any one of which could single-handedly delay the entire process for years.

In June, Ireland failed to ratify the Nice Treaty, which provides for institutional reforms. EU Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen said enlargement will be a "non-starter" without the treaty taking effect. Another referendum will take place in late 2002, after highly charged Irish elections.

Austria threatened more than once to veto enlargement if certain national grievances are not addressed by the EU. One potential problem was removed in late November, when Austria signed a compromise deal with the Czech Republic on the Temelin nuclear power facility. However, Vienna now threatens to block the closure of the "transport" chapter until the EU comes up with a plan to contain lorry transit after enlargement. The Laeken summit failed to break the deadlock.

Finally, Greece has indicated it will not allow enlargement to proceed without Cyprus. Although the reunification of the divided island is not a formal precondition for EU entry, most EU members are known to oppose Cyprus's entry before the problems between the Greek and Turkish communities are solved.

However Cyprus's foreign minister told reporters in Brussels recently that the presidents of the two communities might have a deal by June.