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EU: Enlargement Process Entering Critical Phase

The European Union's eastward enlargement process is reaching a key stage. The European Commission is about to present to the EU member states its formal draft proposals for extending the hugely expensive Common Agricultural Policy to the eastern candidate countries. Officials in Brussels are warning that any wrangling among the member states about the costs involved could mean disaster for the accession timetable, which calls for all negotiations to be concluded by the end of this year, so that the newcomers can join in 2004.

Prague, 9 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The European Union's executive, the European Commission, is expected in the coming days to present to EU member states its proposals on the burning issue of how to extend agricultural support payments to the Central and Eastern European candidate members.

This is a critical moment for the eastward expansion process, in that any major disagreements among the member states about the costs of extending the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) could shatter the delicately balanced timetable for accession. Up to 10 candidate countries are hoping to wrap up all negotiations by the end of the year, with the prospect of joining in 2004.

A leading official of the current Spanish EU presidency, Secretary of State for European Affairs Ramon de Miguel, said last week that expansion could be delayed for years -- perhaps until 2007 -- if members choose to link the difficult issues of farm finance reform or regional funding to the enlargement process.

His comments came in reaction to calls from some member states for reforms to the vastly expensive CAP and regional funding program before they are extended to new members. But de Miguel's spokeswoman, Isabel Rico, says there must be no linkage of those themes. "The Spanish presidency has insisted on not linking those two reforms [agriculture and regional funding] to enlargement, because that would put enlargement at risk in the sense that there could be a delay."

Rico says that, despite the tight deadline, the Spanish presidency is "confident," and that it is "determined" to keep the process on track through its presidency, which ends in June.

The European Commission also wants to prevent the enlargement process from becoming entangled in the question of reforming present EU policies. Gregor Kreuzhueber, the spokesman for EU Agriculture Commissioner Franz Fischler, points to the dangers of doing that. "There have been some member states, like the Dutch, initially, who voiced certain concerns and said, 'No, no, no. First we have to negotiate reform of the CAP, and only then when we know what the new CAP will look like, then we can start negotiating with the candidate countries.' And this is an approach we do not want to follow because it would automatically mean, of course, that enlargement would be delayed. So we think the only feasible approach is to say, we do those two things in parallel, and we press ahead with the enlargement negotiations, and at the same time we also discuss about the future development of the CAP."

Kreuzhueber went on to say that previous experience shows that mixing the two subjects "will not work." So, in accord with this two-track approach, the European Commission will put to the member states, in June, its own ideas on how to reform the CAP.

Kreuzhueber's reference to a potential delay in enlargement echoes comments in Brussels last week by the EU's commissioner for enlargement, Guenter Verheugen. He said any delay would negatively influence public opinion in the accession countries and would play into the hands of extremists -- both of the right and the left -- who oppose European integration.

A senior analyst with the Centre for European Reform in London, Steven Everts, agrees that any substantial delay in expansion would risk putting the whole process in jeopardy. "It would be [a disaster] and rightly so. We have set our minds on that date [2004] and have been talking about that target date for some time now. [Already] we see support to a degree ebbing away in the candidate countries. Mind you, there is also a problem of public opinion in the member states, so I think it's very important we stay on track with this timeline and with this timetable. Any delay would be pretty disastrous."

As it is, some candidates are impatient and are pressing for the earliest date possible. Polish Prime Minister Leszek Miller said on the weekend that for him, the 2004 target for membership means 1 January of that year -- and nothing else. In the EU, the likely earliest date possible is more generally construed as mid-2004.