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EU: Foreign Ministers Finalize Date For Eastward Expansion

European Union foreign ministers have been meeting their ministerial counterparts from the 10 front-running candidate countries in Brussels today to review the state of accession talks. A firm date is expected to be set for the candidates' entry into the union.

Prague, 18 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Today's meeting of foreign ministers of the 15 European Union states and the 10 leading candidate countries sets a milestone on the way to the EU's eastward expansion.

Current EU president Denmark is expected to propose 1 May 2004 for entry of the candidates -- the first officially proposed date offered by the union. It's several months later than had been general anticipated -- a change Denmark defends as more "practical" because it gives EU member parliaments more time to ratify the entry treaties.

The media have suggested the candidates might resent the added delay. The first secretary of the Lithuanian mission to the EU, Kestutis Sadauskas, said there is, in fact, some cause for concern: "We are analyzing the implications of it. [For example, the] institutional [implications], like what will happen with the new [European] Parliament -- when will it be elected and when will it begin a new term? And what will happen with the [planned] intergovernmental conference? How are we [candidates] going to be involved in this conference, which is supposed to take place sometime in the beginning of 2004, [therefore before we would join]? So in that sense, yes, every month lost is an opportunity lost."

The second secretary of the Latvian mission to the EU, Anders Austers, agreed that technical issues are involved, but said he does not see any political motives in play: "We have to look at this issue mainly through the point of view of mainly technical adjustments. Politically it has no impact on Latvia, whether [the entry date chosen] is first of January or first of May."

Belgian-based independent analyst Stefan Maarteel cautions, however, that even the 1 May entry date is contingent on the candidates continuing to make progress in applying the EU's myriad rules and regulations. "It means that starting from 1 May it is possible for these countries to join the EU, but it also means that in the meantime, the EU will closely follow [the progress of] these Eastern European countries. So it is not certain they will be given accession on 1 May. It can always be postponed. And even after their accession into the EU, they will still be monitored, because there are considerable worries about different aspects in each country [and their compatibility with EU rules]."

Latvia's Austers describes today's meeting in Brussels as important, saying it is an opportunity to take stock of what has been achieved so far and will set out the road for the coming weeks, when the candidates are supposed to conclude their negotiations in time for the mid-December EU summit in Copenhagen. The summit is expected to issue formal invitations to the candidates to join the union.

In addition to setting a date for expansion to begin, today's meeting was also reviewing the state of the accession negotiations. As the press spokeswoman of the Estonian Mission to the EU, Ehdel Halliste, put it, "Every country will present their position on financial issues, but I think that every country has its own agenda as well."

Reports have said that the candidates plan to demand better entry terms, especially in the matter of agriculture, in which their farmers are being initially offered only 25 percent of the level of financial support available to the present EU members. Lithuania's Sadauskas noted, "It's perhaps not necessarily realistic [to expect] to improve every offer, but that is what the negotiations are for, and perhaps we can focus on what is realistic."

The meeting of EU foreign ministers continues tomorrow, when a number of international issues will be discussed. Among them will be whether to impose an EU travel ban on Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and his top officials, in response to continuing human rights concerns in Belarus.