Rising to the enlargement challenge

Series Title
Series Details Vol 7, No.1, 4.1.01, p9 (editorial)
Publication Date 04/01/2001
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Date: 04/01/01

The incoming Swedish presidency has rightly made enlargement one of the overriding priorities for its six-month term in charge of EU business.

Six months ago, the applicant countries were justifiably concerned that Union leaders, despite their rhetoric, were less than sincere about ending the historical division of Europe and letting former Iron Curtain countries join the EU. Since then, however, Union governments have agreed the Treaty of Nice which, while treating some of the candidate countries rather shabbily, has at least removed one of the major obstacles to enlargement. EU leaders have even expressed optimism that the best-prepared countries should be able to take part in the European Parliament elections and Intergovernmental Conference, both scheduled for 2004.

Yet an enormous amount of work lies ahead for the applicants and existing EU countries alike. Until now, a phoney war has been fought in negotiations on terms of entry. Even in areas where the haggling over special exemptions and transition periods for individual applicants has been wrapped up, the Union has made no secret of the fact that the negotiations can and probably will be reopened at a later stage when the real hard bargaining starts.

The Swedes have set themselves ambitious targets for the next six months. They are hoping to start negotiations in around 60 different areas with the six 'Helsinki' applicants which only began entry talks last year.

Stockholm will also push for progress in negotiations with the most advanced candidates on some of the most sensitive issues such as the free movement of workers, justice and home affairs, and regional aid.

The Swedes' success will depend to an extent on how prepared the applicant countries themselves are to provide detailed information about their agricultural sectors or their precise needs for regional aid to help restructure rust-belt industries or assist poverty-stricken rural areas. But making headway will also depend heavily on whether existing member states are able to settle their differences over the most controversial issues so that the applicants have concrete proposals on which to negotiate.

The omens do not look good. German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder has already indicated how tough Berlin will be over the free movement of workers, insisting on a seven-year delay before labourers from new member states can work anywhere in the EU. Spain has warned that it will find it hard to broker a deal on the share-out of regional funds - a hugely sensitive issue at home - when it takes over the Union's reins next January.

The most important service Stockholm can perform for the applicants is to force existing member states to begin breaking the deadlock over the most explosive issues which are the real threat to the enlargement process.

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