Sweden pushes for early breakthrough on EU expansion

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Series Details Vol 7, No.1, 4.1.01, p1
Publication Date 04/01/2001
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Date: 04/01/01

By Simon Taylor

THE Swedish presidency plans to speed up the pace of negotiations with applicants for Union membership by tackling some of the most difficult subjects six to 12 months ahead of schedule.

Swedish officials say they hope to launch negotiations on hugely sensitive issues including agriculture, regional policy and justice and home affairs in the first half of 2001, rather than waiting until after the summer or the start of 2002 as agreed at last month's Nice summit.

"We will hold negotiations on a range of issues which are not in the indicative programme provided we get the information we require from the applicant countries themselves," said one.

Swedish Foreign Minister Anna Lindh has revealed that she has already held discussions with Belgium and Spain, the two countries which will hold the presidencies successively after Stockholm, about bringing forward negotiations on sensitive chapters.

The Swedes are keen to deliver a breakthrough during their stint in charge of EU business by launching and completing talks in as many areas as possible over the next six months.

But their ambitions have come under threat from the timetable agreed by Union leaders in December, which would delay negotiations on some subjects with major financial implications - such as the applicants' slice of the Union's €40-billion farm budget - until the first half of 2002.

The European Commission, which drew up the strategy, says it is designed to prevent the pace of enlargement slipping if some EU countries start dragging their feet over negotiations in sensitive areas. Commission officials have desrcibed the timetable as a "safety net" rather than a "strait jacket", meaning that talks in some areas could begin sooner than envisaged if circumstances allowed but could not start any later, even if some member states favoured a slower approach.

Madrid has already warned it will face problems in brokering an agreement on regional aid during its presidency because of the political importance of structural fund money in Spain.

But the Swedes' chances of launching talks on subjects such as farm subsidies and regional policy will depend on whether applicant countries can provide enough detailed information to allow existing member states to agree their negotiating stance and the Commission to draft a formal position in time.

Even without adding new topics to the agenda, Sweden faces a tough challenge to settle differences between EU countries on the rights of citizens from applicant countries to work where they please in the Union.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder called last month for a seven-year delay after accession before full free-movement rights are granted. Berlin is keen for an early provisional agreement on this subject to prevent right-wing politicians exploiting fears about enlargement in Germany's 2002 national elections.

Stockholm has promised that it will start talks on all areas except the EU institutions by the end of its presidency. Slovenian diplomats said this week it was likely that negotiations could be closed in less controversial areas such as culture and transport during the Swedish presidency. But they expressed doubts that major progress could be made on difficult issues such as justice and home affairs and regional policy. "It is not realistic to think we can close these chapters in the first half of this year," said one.

The Swedish Presidency plans to speed up the pace of negotiations with applicants for Union membership by tackling some of the most difficult subjects six to 12 months ahead of schedule.

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