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EU: Candidates Demand Better Entry Terms

Leading European Union candidates yesterday signed a joint declaration warning the bloc to take steps to guarantee that none of the new entrants will be worse off financially in 2004 than before enlargement. Revealing much of their negotiating position, the candidates hinted they would not question the more fundamental aspects of the EU's financing offer made at the Brussels summit two weeks ago. However, the candidates will face an uphill battle in achieving even their more modest goals.

Brussels, 6 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Meeting in Brussels yesterday, finance ministers from the leading 10 European Union candidate countries adopted a joint declaration saying they want guarantees their budgets won't be in a worse shape after accession than before it.

The declaration deals exclusively with the candidates' expected budget positions after accession. This is an indication that the candidates have dropped attempts to reverse the EU's position on larger issues like agricultural subsidies, or other central features of the financing offer made at the Brussels summit 10 days ago.

The EU's enlargement commissioner, together with the Danish ministers overseeing the EU's current presidency, have repeatedly made it clear that the financial aspects of the package are not negotiable.

Hungary's Finance Minister Csaba Laszlo yesterday stuck to the candidates' official line in insisting that the EU offer could be improved as a whole: "So far, we didn't hear that there [will be] no further negotiations, so we believe it's negotiable. Of course we'd like to improve [the offer]."

Nevertheless, yesterday's declaration concentrates its attack on one specific area, which many candidates believe is where the EU is most likely to give way.

The EU position says the new members are expected to fully contribute to the bloc's budget from the first day of membership. Yesterday, the leading candidates said they want a "phasing-in" period -- one that should last exactly as long as the "phasing-in" period preceding their full participation in the EU's farm subsidies scheme. Here, the EU suggests that parity between old and new members could only come by 2013.

More to the point, however, is the candidates' claim that the EU promise that no new member will be worse off in the first year of membership than before is based on "unrealistic assumptions."

At their Brussels summit, EU leaders agreed to bend the rules a little and release some of the bloc's regional-structural-aid money to the new members already on accession, to compensate for their payments into the EU budget.

However, applying for regional-aid money is normally a lengthy process -- neither Spain nor Portugal was able to use any of these funds in their first year of membership. The candidates note in their joint declaration yesterday that the EU appears to expect them to be able to absorb funds faster than even the current member states.

Madis Uurike, an adviser to the Estonian finance minister, summed up the problem as follows: "We all feel a general concern that what we will pay into the EU budget is more than what we will get back. In the first instance, this has to do with our absorption capacity -- that is, to make use of the structural funds is a very complex procedure, and it takes a long time to receive anything."

Uurike said the candidates are less concerned with the technicalities of the solution than receiving a clear, binding commitment from the EU that should budgetary shortfalls occur after accession, they will be rectified fully in a timely manner.

Ironically, the EU's finance and economy ministers last night criticized four leading candidates -- Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Malta -- for their ballooning budget deficits. If not brought under control soon after enlargement, large deficits would undermine the new members' chances of joining the euro-zone.