Big-bang scenario looms as EU universe prepares to expand

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Series Details Vol.7, No.23, 7.6.01, p14
Publication Date 07/06/2001
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Date: 07/06/01

By Simon Taylor

EU ENLARGEMENT has often been characterised as a race. But it now looks like it's going to turn into a stampede.

Back in the dark days of 1997, at the Luxembourg summit, the Union drew a new dividing line across central and eastern Europe by offering only six applicant states the chance of starting negotiations for entry to the bloc. But four years later all indications are that the next enlargement of the EU will see up to 10 countries joining.

Publicly, Union leaders and the European Commission stick to the policy of 'differentiation' - judging each candidate strictly on its merits and letting each join when it is ready. Given the strong performance of a handful of countries - Hungary, Estonia, Slovenia and Cyprus - in bringing their legislation into line with EU law, that should mean a small-scale expansion of the Union in the next few years.

But the reality - a 'big-bang' enlargement - is starting to leak out.

Commission President Romano Prodi makes no secret of his ambition for an expansion which takes in as many countries as are ready when the Union opens its doors to its east European and Mediterranean neighbours.

Budget chief Michaele Schreyer has given the strongest indication yet that the Commission is thinking big-bang. In a speech to the London School of Economics, she claimed that the 1999 Berlin budget would finance a 10-nation expansion in 2004 and stay within the ceiling of 1.27% of EU gross domestic product.

Despite lip service to differentiation, several factors point to the big-bang scenario - which will naturally suit some of those Luxembourg wallflowers: Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia and Malta.

Although the Swedes have performed sterling work during their presidency, enabling some of the front-runners to close negotiations in nearly 20 chapters of the acquis communautaire, the bargaining has started to run into the sand as member states are forced to address the sensitive money issues.

These delays have given the second rank of applicants a much-appreciated chance to catch up.

Fears that Spain would lose its generous share of the EU's annual €30 billion regional aid budget when the new poorer countries joined prompted Madrid to block a deal on free movement of workers from applicant countries.

Spain finally lifted its objections last week, paving the way for an accord on the sensitive subject in time for the Göteborg summit. But more than anything, the row highlighted the biggest danger of delay in the negotiations. It's not the candidates' reluctance to comply with the EU's demands, but the existing member states' efforts to protect their own interests.

While the thorny issue of free movement seems to have been resolved for now, more battles lie ahead. The rows over regional aid will reignite next year when Spain tries to broker a deal under its EU presidency. And France has already indicated that it will play hardball over the Common Agricultural Policy next year.

Increasingly worried by the prospects of further delays, the six leading applicants last week called on member states to keep up the momentum of talks by not linking seemingly unrelated issues and by starting negotiations on agriculture in the second half of this year.

They are also pressing EU leaders for a clearer timetable for the next leg of the process, calling for a pledge to wrap up all chapters by the middle of next year.

Their nervousness is justified. The recent BSE and foot-and-mouth crises have stepped up the pressure for far-reaching reform of the Union's farm support policy.

France's true stance on CAP reform will only emerge after the presidential elections in May 2002, and it is clear that the key question of how much money farmers in new member states will get after enlargement will not be wrapped up until the end of next year at the earliest.

Even so, taking in the first members in time for the European Parliament elections in summer 2004 will be a tall order. Once the negotiations are finished national parliaments will have to agree to admit the new countries by ratifying the accession treaties for each applicant.

This can be done quickly - as happened when Austria, Sweden and Finland were queuing up to join in 1995 - but Union officials say that getting approval from national parliaments will take 12 months at the very least. This makes the chances of enlargement taking place by mid-2004 extremely unlikely.

But because of the pledge made at the Nice summit for the best-prepared countries to take part in 2004 election, candidates from the applicant states would only take their seats once their countries become full members.

Yet there is one other important factor that will keep enlargement from happening any earlier than 2004: Poland. Despite all public pronouncements that candidates will be judged on their merits, it is clear Warsaw has to be in the first wave.

Enlargement Commissioner Günter Verheugen freely admitted the strategic significance of this, saying on numerous occasions: "Enlargement without Poland does not make a lot of sense."

But fears about Warsaw's sluggish progress in negotiations (it has closed three to four fewer chapters than the front-runners), concern about its ability to implement Community law and the prospect of slowdown in the rate of reform in the run-up to general elections this autumn have intensified anxiety that even the best performing candidates may have to wait for the biggest applicant state to qualify.

Diplomats from smaller candidate countries argue that it would be politically easier and cost less to have an early mini enlargement of the best prepared candidates - Hungary, Estonia, Slovenia and Cyprus - rather than asking the EU to admit 10 new states with the inevitable price tag.

These countries warn that their people are not prepared to wait any longer than the 10 years or so they have already spent preparing to join the European family.

In the corridors of the Commission and national capitals across the Union the argument is reversed. A two-stage expansion would have a serious and possibly fatal effect on support for membership in those countries left out of the first wave, officials argue.

But perhaps the most persuasive case for the big-bang is the boost it would give to EU credibility if it could pull off such an ambitious project.

As one official commented: "Enlargement is the major task of this Commission. If the first wave of enlargement is only a small number of countries how does that make us look?"

Article forms part of a survey on enlargement.

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