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EU: Candidates Mark Progress In Talks This Week

A number of candidate countries for membership in the European Union made progress toward that aim in talks this week in Brussels. It was the first round of accession talks held under new president Denmark. EU diplomats said the talks helped to "clear the table" before discussions on the costs of enlargement -- expected to be very difficult -- begin in October.

Brussels, 31 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The first round of European Union enlargement talks held under the EU's current Danish presidency went a long way toward tying up loose ends before difficult negotiations on the costs of enlargement begin this autumn.

The talks between current EU members and the 10 leading candidates took place on Monday and Tuesday in Brussels.

Wrapping up the talks, Denmark's EU envoy Poul Skytte said the EU and the candidates collectively managed to agree on seven additional areas of EU law, leaving in total just eight nonfinancial chapters open for discussion.

Two financial chapters, on agriculture and the budget, remain open for all of the candidates and cannot be addressed before late October, when the results of Germany's September elections become clear.

Skitte singled out Hungary, Estonia, and Poland for closing especially difficult chapters. "When we took over from the Spanish presidency [on 1 July], I think we had 15 -- taking the 10 countries together -- 15 chapters which had not yet been closed. We have been able during this session to close about half of these chapters, seven chapters in all in various areas: regional policy for four countries, culture and audiovisual [policy] for Hungary. Of course, all of these closures are important, but if I should take out two closures which I consider of particular importance, I would mention energy with Estonia and justice and home affairs with Poland," Skitte said.

Central to Estonia's long-delayed closure of the Energy Chapter was success in having the EU recognize oil-shale as a "unique energy carrier." Oil shale (rock sediment containing organic matter that can be burned as fuel) yields 90 percent of Estonia's electricity but is not mined anywhere else in the EU or the candidate countries.

Estonia's chief negotiator, Alar Streimann, said Estonia had won a 10-year transition period before it must open its energy markets to EU competition. The delay is necessary for restructuring Estonia's noncompetitive energy market. The deal was described by Streimann as a remarkable victory. "We will have 10 years to decide ourselves how to develop our energy sector. This is a very important economic advantage for us, it is also an advantage in terms of [energy] security -- the development of the entire energy package is in our own hands," Streimann said.

Poland's closure of the Home Affairs Chapter removed one of the biggest obstacles from its path before the negotiations over the financial package. Poland was the last candidate country to close this chapter because of heightened EU concern over the security of its eastern border.

Poland's chief negotiator, Jan Truszczynski, said his country's problems were the same as faced by other candidate countries, but said Poland's size meant it needed to do more to earn the trust of EU member states. "If there is a difference, then the difference as usual is in size. Poland is a slightly larger country [than other candidates] as far as the territory is concerned, a big country with a slightly longer, or much longer, external [non-EU] border than the other candidate countries -- and a country which therefore probably needs a bit more trust and confidence from the current member states," Truszczynski said.

Denmark's Skitte, who oversaw the talks, said the EU had agreed to close the Home Affairs Chapter after Poland undertook "a number of commitments," among them to increase the number of border guards on the eastern border and replace conscripts with professional staff by 2006.

EU officials said Poland can expect to join the EU's visa-free Schengen regime in 2006. Until then, its citizens -- like those of other new members -- will need to carry passports to travel in the EU.

After Tuesday, Estonia, Lithuania, Slovenia, and Cyprus have closed all but the two financial chapters. Poland, together with Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Malta face another tough hurdle in the form of the Competition Chapter, where state subsidies, restructuring heavy industry, and the status of free economic zones remain hotly contested issues.

Eneko Landaburu, the European Commission's top civil servant in charge of the enlargement, warned this week of what he called "undeniable obstacles" still remaining regardless of the progress. Aside from the competition chapter, he said discord among member states over how enlargement should be financed threatens delays.

Another potential snag is Ireland's second referendum on the Nice treaty, expected to take place in October. Landaburu said if Ireland rejects the treaty again, the fallout could seriously affect enlargement.

After talks this week, Cyprus, Estonia, Lithuania, and Slovenia have closed 28 of the 30 chapters, followed by Latvia and Slovakia with 27, Hungary and Poland with 26, the Czech Republic with 25, and Malta with 24.

Bulgaria and Romania -- aiming for accession in 2007 -- have closed 21 and 13 chapters, respectively.