Brussels, 5 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Guenter Verheugen, the European Union's enlargement commissioner, said today that he is confident the 10 leading candidate countries will be "adequately prepared" for enlargement in 2004.
Presenting a report in Brussels on the candidates' administrative preparations, Verheugen said the candidates would not be "100 percent prepared," but added that also applies to most current member states. "What I can say today, and that may surprise you, is that the new members will, by the time of their accession, have achieved a higher level of implementation of EU law than the average of the current member state," Verheugen said.
Verheugen said enlargement negotiations were just the "tip of the iceberg" compared to the extensive grassroots administrative preparations and adjustments the candidates are putting into practice.
Verheugen said that to help EU member states monitor progress, the commission has drawn up a list of the administrative-reform commitments the candidates have undertaken.
He added that close monitoring would be continued after the candidates' accession to ensure the drive to comply with EU law is not relaxed.
Verheugen took the opportunity today to use his news conference to try to shore up waning support for enlargement in the EU. Asked to clarify remarks he has made repeatedly in recent weeks that the "window of opportunity" for enlargement is closing, Verheugen indicated he fears the shift to the right among European electorates could turn public opinion against enlargement.
Verheugen's fears are borne out by recent poll results that clearly show that enlargement is losing support among Western Europeans.
Verheugen said he thinks the main problem is not that most EU citizens are against enlargement, but rather that they lack sufficient information about the process. He pointed to a 150 million-euro ($141 million) communication strategy being wheeled out by the commission, but failed to mention that the official launch of the campaign was celebrated nearly two years ago.
Verheugen said the aim of the communication strategy is to explain that enlargement should be seen as a solution to the problems feared by many EU citizens, such as immigration, cross-border crime, and the adverse effects of globalization. "I think the right message to the citizens of Europe is that European integration, as evidenced by the enlargement, does not create these problems, but is one of the most important factors in solving them," Verheugen said.
But, Verheugen also warned, patience in the candidate countries is wearing thin. He said the process of enlargement started for many in the candidate countries in 1989, and that the willingness of populations in Eastern Europe to continue "absorbing change" is increasingly tested.
Verheugen repeated his earlier assessment that a possible second rejection of the Nice Treaty by Ireland later this year would constitute a "very, very serious problem" for enlargement.
The enlargement commissioner also explicitly ruled out what to many appears the only option to keep enlargement on track should the second Irish referendum fail: the possibility that the institutional changes envisaged by the Nice Treaty could be incorporated into the accession treaties.
"I do not see the possibility that we can simply include the institutional provisions [of the Nice Treaty] in the accession treaties. As an Irish voter I would not accept that -- a treaty that was rejected twice and then the provisions come and tell me 'we didn't need [the two referenda], we can do it otherwise.' This will not work," Verheugen said.
What Verheugen didn't say is that Ireland is the only EU member state that will also need to hold a referendum to approve the accession treaties. In effect, should the second Irish referendum on Nice fail, the inclusion of some provisions of the Nice Treaty in accession treaties would mean Irish voters would be asked to vote on them for the third time.
The problem appears intractable at this stage. Verheugen said today he has no answer, resorting to what EU leaders have kept saying since the first Irish referendum last June: "The answer lies in Ireland."