New York, 14 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The president of the European Commission, Romano Prodi, stressed on 11 January that human rights were the most important criteria for states seeking membership in the European Union.
Prodi, speaking in New York to the Council on Foreign Relations, credited the enlargement process with improving human rights legislation in many of the candidate countries.
"The most important result of enlargement is how the parliaments of the new member states have worked day and night to change their legislations, to protect minorities, to [provide] local democracy. This is the most important job of Europe."
The commission president said differences over human rights standards were the main obstacle to Turkey entering into formal accession negotiations. He cited the Baltics as an example where more needs to be done to ensure linguistic rights for ethnic Russians. He said that is the cost of joining the European Union.
Prodi said the European Union would continue to support institutional reform in the former Yugoslavia. But he said the countries of the Balkan region will only achieve lasting stability and prosperity as part of the European Union.
"There is no future, no peaceful future, for the Balkans if there is not a wider point of reference. There are centuries of hate, centuries of blood. [Balkan states] must be sovereign but belonging to big families. Otherwise, there will be no peace."
Prodi noted Slovenia's status as one of the leading candidates for accession in 2004 and said other states in the region should follow its example.
Two of the toughest issues in enlargement negotiations are on agricultural subsidies and regional funding. The current EU budget runs to 2006 but beyond that, reports from Brussels say the European Commission proposes setting transition periods of between five and 10 years before the new members would gain full agricultural benefits enjoyed by other EU states.
Prodi today did not provide a specific time period but said there would likely be a waiting period for the new states until the EU budget can handle uniform subsidies.
"The benefits will not be taken immediately, in the day of entrance but like with the agricultural policy for Spain [when it joined], in a period of time."
The commission's proposals on this issue must still be considered and approved by the 15 member states so they do not yet represent a common EU position.