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EU: Brussels Gives Green Light For Expansion As Real Work Begins

The European Commission's announcement today that 10 mostly Central and Eastern European countries are prospectively ready to join the European Union in 2004 clears the way for a new, unified Europe. The recommendation, contained in the annual progress reports on the candidates, crowns years of effort by those accession countries. But the work of transforming the societies and economies of the region will go on, and will bring with it a host of new problems for the EU.

Prague, 9 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Some 13 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Europe appears to be on the threshold of a new era. The long-sought-for unity of much of the continent came a step closer today with the release of the European Commission's latest annual reports on the progress of the mostly Central and Eastern European countries toward accession.

The reports say the 10 leading countries -- the Czech Republic, Cyprus, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia -- are ready to conclude the formal negotiations on schedule by December, and could join the European Union in 2004.

The two Balkan candidates not included in that schedule, Bulgaria and Romania, are offered encouragement to make further progress, but the reports merely "take note" that those countries hope for membership as early as 2007. In EU parlance, that means the commission is not committing itself to that time frame.

These recommendations are subject to approval by a summit of EU leaders set to take place later this year, but that is expected to be a formality. And expansion of the EU will go hand-in-hand with the expected expansion next month of the NATO alliance to a further seven countries in the region.

But in practical terms, this is not the end of a long and difficult path for the EU and its candidates. On the contrary, says senior researcher Peter Zervakis of Bonn University's ZEI think tank. Zervakis says the hard work of meeting all the EU's conditions will continue:

"It is clear that the transformation process of the eastern countries has not been finished so far, and will not finish next year, but in due time. The integration process has always been more [a result of] a political will of the Western European countries."

Zervakis says the recommendation now to go ahead with the expansion is a recognition that, for the sake of political credibility, the moment could not be delayed any longer:

"The promise [of membership] had been made 10 years ago and has been postponed several times so far, so there is at the moment, I think, no alternative to just taking in the most advanced countries. The majority of them are smaller [countries] and will not cause [such] a headache for the Union."

The big exception to this is, of course, Poland, which is by far the largest of the candidates and one with a huge and inefficient farming sector. The accession of Poland could intensify the problems with financing the prohibitively expensive common agricultural policy (CAP). How to reform the CAP in light of the accession countries is presently the subject of debate between key EU members Germany and France.

But farming is not the only problem, as Senior Analyst Adrian Ottnad of the German Institute for Economy and Society points out:

"Now that it comes to the point when these countries have to enter the union, there are a lot of very hard questions to answer, questions like, 'What about coal mining?' and the subsidies in this area."

Ottnad says the "moment of truth" is arriving, in that enlargement will require no less than the rearrangement of all the interests within the EU. As he puts it: "I think there are a lot of potential conflicts among the different old member countries, and with the newcomers."

One of these areas of disagreement could be the EU intention to impose a "safeguard period" of at least two years, in which EU rules and benefits could be suspended in the event of "disruptions" in the Union as a result of events in one or more of the accession countries. Critics say such a clause could potentially be used against cheap imports from the accession countries, which they say would not be fair.

However, the most immediate danger to the expansion process is looming from quite another quarter -- namely, from EU member Ireland.

In a referendum scheduled for 19 October, the Irish people will decide whether to approve the EU's Nice treaty. That's the basic document that sets out the arrangements for enlargement. Only Ireland among the member states must hold a referendum, and they have already rejected the treaty once, in a referendum held last year.

A second rejection would smash the present timetable for expansion and call the whole process into doubt.