Foreign ministers from the 10 leading candidate countries for European Union membership have announced they intend to take a united stand on the controversial issue of agricultural subsidies. None of the candidate countries has so far closed the Agriculture Chapter with the EU, which is a precondition for accession. Does this common declaration signal a watershed in negotiating tactics by applicant countries, or is it merely symbolic in nature?
Prague, 23 October 2002 (RFE/RL)-- As European Union foreign ministers met in Luxembourg yesterday ahead of tomorrow's Brussels summit on how to finance enlargement, their counterparts from the 10 leading applicant countries held their own talks in Prague.
The message of the Prague get-together, as Slovenian Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel put it, was simple: EU applicants sought to remind their EU colleagues that they expect access to the same benefits and subsidies available to current EU members, once they join the bloc, and under no circumstances will they accept second-tier status.
"We have discussed the issue -- and this is a very serious issue -- about not becoming net payers after becoming members. We don't want to be put into a category of second-class Europeans," Rupel said.
At issue, above all, are agricultural subsidies. Currently, these account for half of the EU's budget, and all agree that it will be impossible to maintain such funding levels if the EU, as expected, enlarges to accommodate an additional 10 members in 2004.
The European Commission has told applicant countries that for the start, their farmers can expect to receive just 25 percent of the subsidies their other EU colleagues will receive. Applicant states have protested that this is unacceptable. They note that such unequal subsidies amount to unfair competition, which could lead most agricultural producers in Central and Eastern Europe to go bankrupt.
At their Prague meeting, foreign ministers from the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, Slovenia, Slovakia, Malta, Cyprus, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia issued a joint statement saying they intend to seek a better deal before EU entry and will take a "united stand" in this endeavor.
Is this a watershed moment? And will the EU now face stiff, collective opposition from applicants on the issue of agricultural subsidies and possibly other matters?
Not quite, says Petras Austrevicius, the Lithuanian government's chief negotiator on EU accession. He explained the meaning of the Prague declaration to RFE/RL by saying: "We are not going to change our negotiating tactics in principle, meaning that we are going to negotiate individually. This is the very meaning of accession negotiations. But this does not prevent us from closer cooperation and closer collaboration, once we approach the final end. So, with this in mind, I believe that at the point when our common interests are involved we will exchange information and we will keep monitoring, as well as supporting, each other on certain issues. But an individual approach -- since every candidate has its own set of priorities -- will prevail up to the very end of negotiations."
In Tallinn, the head of the Estonian government's European Integration Bureau, Hendrik Hololei, expressed a similar view. Despite the talk of a united front, Estonia, too, will continue on the path of individual negotiations. As Hololei told RFE/RL, the format of accession talks was set long ago by the EU. "The whole process of negotiations is based on individual negotiations, and the problems in the countries are also of a different nature, even though there are some general matters which are of general concern. So, of course, the individual nature of the negotiations cannot be changed," Hololei said.
Hololei confirmed that for his country, as for most other applicant states, agriculture is a key issue, and not only subsidies are at stake. But because Estonia has its own specific concerns, it will continue to push for concessions from the EU on issues that are of particular relevance to Estonian farmers. "The agriculture negotiations are of big importance. [There is] no doubt about that. And there are for us certain issues in those negotiations which have to be solved. The issue of milk quotas, the production quotas, are of utmost importance for Estonia, and the export potential of our agricultural producers [is also important]. And we'll definitely assign a lot of political priority in order to find solutions which would be appropriate for Estonia," Hololei said.
As Lithuania's chief accession negotiator indicated, the aim of the Prague summit was to send a signal to Brussels that applicant states intend to strike a hard bargain and to keep each other updated on the others' progress. "These negotiations should not lead us to diminished competitiveness once we are in the single market, and this position should prevail. So what kind of solutions might be proposed in this respect? I don't know yet what kind of proposals there will be from the EU side, but I see that as the prevailing priority," Austrevicius said.
It's now the EU's move. But all indications are that EU applicants remain keen on joining the organization, especially now that the Irish referendum on 19 October removed a major stumbling block on the road to accession.
Ultimately, common declarations should not be interpreted as an unwillingness to be flexible on the terms of membership.
(RFE/RL's Slovak and Estonian services contributed to this report.)