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EU: In Accession Race, Balts, Slovaks Gain Ground

The candidate states for membership in the European Union made progress toward that goal in accession talks this week in Brussels. Yet perhaps the most surprising development has been the relatively rapid progress of Lithuania, Latvia, and Slovakia. These countries were formerly regarded as a part of a "second wave" of aspirants, behind early "first-wave" frontrunners like Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. Now they are at or near the top of the list. RFE/RL spoke to an analyst on the EU who says the original wave concept has been blurred and the 10 front-runners can more or less be regarded as a homogeneous group.

Brussels, 2 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- This week, European Union candidate countries passed a milestone when four of them, Cyprus, Slovenia, Estonia, and Lithuania, took their tally of closed negotiating chapters to 28.

This means they are now free to concentrate on the two chapters remaining on the table, Agriculture and Budget, when the EU provides them with its own negotiating position, probably by early November.

But the real story appears to be the relatively strong performances of the three Baltic countries and Slovakia. Latvia and Slovakia are just one chapter behind the four leaders. Both of those countries, along with Lithuania, were originally relegated to a "second wave" of accession hopefuls, behind early expected front-runners like Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic.

The success of Latvia, Lithuania, and Slovakia confirms what EU leaders made obvious already last December at their Laeken summit when they named the 10 candidate countries that can hope to join the bloc in 2004. The former second wave was then officially split into two parts: Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, and Malta gained a firm foothold in the first wave, along with Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Estonia, and Cyprus; Bulgaria and Romania must now wait until 2007.

Michael Emerson, an analyst with the Brussels-based think tank Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS), said the concept of "waves" in the enlargement process underwent a radical shift months ago. "[The] next accession candidates [are] the [new] 'first wave' -- for me that's [the] 10. [The] 'second wave' then would be Bulgaria and Romania. [The] 'third wave' may be Croatia, may be Turkey, and so forth," Emerson said.

Emerson said the present first wave expecting to join the EU in 2004 has become what he called a "fairly homogeneous group" facing essentially similar challenges. He said the catch-up of Latvia, Lithuania, and Slovakia with the original front-runners has come at no particular cost with respect to these countries' long-term interests. "[Speaking of] long-term interests, absolutely not; short-term discomfort is a question, but broadly speaking, I think the evidence is that when you're approaching joining the European Union as a full member state, you might as well get it over with as fast as possible," Emerson said.

After EU leaders decided at their Helsinki summit in December 1999 to open accession talks with an additional six countries, first-wave governments that had started negotiations two years earlier feared this would slow down their progress. In retrospect, there is no indication that has happened.

The main factor here seems to have been that while first-wave countries had to wait for the EU member states to come up with negotiating positions on each chapter, second-wave countries faced no such obstacle and were able to clinch deals quickly that do not differ substantively from those achieved by the first wave.

Politicians in some first-wave countries have also expressed fears that the EU might be turning a blind eye to the second wave's questionable ability actually to implement EU laws.

Emerson said he does not think that the EU has given any special treatment to Latvia, Lithuania, or Slovakia. He said that only political factors, such as the possible election in Slovakia this year of former Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar, could impede a country's progress. "I wouldn't know how to really differentiate myself [among] these 10 countries. There are some political factors, highly political factors, but that's a different question, rather than administrative capacity. You might say that Slovakia has been a slow starter, for obvious reasons, maybe there are problems there, but otherwise I wouldn't put my finger on anything really important. In fact, the political factors are the important issue. If, in forthcoming elections, Mr. Meciar is elected prime minister of Slovakia, there's a problem," Emerson said.

In fact, the most obvious dividing line between the 10 leading candidates cuts across any "wave" distinctions. It is constituted by the fact that the Czech Republic, Hungary, Malta, Poland, and Slovakia have so far been unable to close talks on the Competition Chapter. The four Central European countries share the same post-communist industrial heritage that now needs to be propped up by substantial state aid, which runs counter to EU competition-policy rules.

The final question to ask is whether the inclusion of a second wave in accession talks in December 1999 could have had an impact on the timing of enlargement as a whole.

Again, Emerson does not think the second wave has made a detectable difference. He said the dynamics of the process have been largely determined by the progress of Poland, the biggest country seeking admission to the EU. "I don't actually think it's made much difference. If you look at the problems with Poland -- the biggest candidate and [having] considerable problems -- you wouldn't really say that the Polish questions have been affected [by the inclusion of the second wave]," Emerson said.

Emerson added that in his opinion, "nature has taken its course" and that neither the advancement of negotiations or their expected closure in Copenhagen in December has been slowed down.