|Series Title||European Voice|
|Series Details||15/05/97, Volume 3, Number 19|
THE Czech Republic is leading the pack of ten former Communist countries bidding for EU membership, with Bulgaria bringing up the rear.
But European Commission insiders say that even the front runners have a long way to go and predict it will take them at least five to six years to prepare for entry into the 15-nation club.
“None of them looks to be in terribly good shape, although the first four or five could make it in the medium term if we continue to support them,” said one.
The warning comes as officials complete their analysis of the responses to questionnaires sent to the applicant countries last year and put the finishing touches to their opinions (avis) on each candidate's suitability for membership.
Leading the pack alongside the Czech Republic in terms of their technical readiness for EU accession are Slovenia and Hungary, followed by Estonia and Poland. Way down at the bottom of the league are Romania and Bulgaria, whose weak economies and immature rule of law make Union membership a distant dream.
Perhaps the biggest surprise is Poland which, although the political favourite for early EU entry, comes fifth. Also lagging behind is Slovakia, a favourite until about a year ago, whose political system is seen by analysts as highly suspect and whose economy is far from secure.
Latvia and Lithuania, two of the three Baltic States which were previously part of the Soviet Union, are also falling behind due to poor law and order and leaky borders. EU administrators point to widespread organised crime and an inability to control trade with Russia as obstacles to their bids for Union membership.
Although the running order is not yet set in stone - and will not be confirmed until the Commission publishes its opinions on 16 July - the emerging picture will come as little surprise to those who have kept a close watch on the progress of reforms in the applicant countries.
“The best and the worst are fairly easy to identify - those in the middle are causing more difficulties,” said one expert.
The latest pecking order does not necessarily determine the sequence in which the applicant countries will join the EU, since it is based on a purely technical analysis of how capable the candidates are of adopting internal market rules and standards.
Once the Commission releases its opinions, it will then be up to national politicians to weigh technical considerations against the broader political picture of European integration.
At that point, it is highly likely that countries such as Poland - whose Union membership is seen as crucial by France and Germany - will rise in the rankings.
As shown by the decision to allow Greece into the EU despite a negative opinion, these avis are likely to form only a small part of the broad political game which will be played in Europe.
This has fuelled fears in countries such as Estonia that political considerations will push them further down the list through no fault of their own, prompting warnings that efforts to meet Union standards may be abandoned if they are left out of the first round of enlargement talks for the 'wrong' reasons.
Estonia's Foreign Minister Toomas Ilves said this week that if certain central European countries were invited to join without Estonia, “it would send a clear message to all those reforming countries that it does not matter if you reform or not, it only matters if you are in the right place”.
He added: “If Estonia is left out of the EU for political reasons, not on performance, it will continue with dramatic economic reforms but could cease to attempt to harmonise legislation.”
|Countries / Regions||Czechia, Eastern Europe|