Joining the club
B R U S S E L S
IF YOU thought the enlargement of NATO was controversial, just wait for the arguments over the enlargement of the EU. Next week the European Commission will publish opinions on applications to join the 15-member Union from ten Central and East European countries. It will recommend that the Union should open negotiations next year with five: Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovenia and Estonia. The Union is already committed to negotiating with a sixth country, Cyprus (the Greek part). The remaining applicantsLatvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Bulgaria and Romaniawill have to wait, along with Turkey, on which the commission gave a negative opinion in 1989.
The commission says its recommendations are based on an objective assessment of the applicants, measured against criteria established at an EU summit in Copenhagen in 1993. To join the EU, it was agreed, a country must have stable institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and protection of minorities; a functioning market economy; and the ability to accept the obligations of membership, including the aims of political, economic and monetary union. Between them these criteria seem to knock out, for the time being, all the non-starters.
Yet EU governments are unlikely to rubber-stamp the commissions list. France is sure to urge the claims of Romania, a disappointed applicant to NATO, although the commission explicitly rejects any notion that EU membership could be compensation for not joining NATO. The Turks will be cross not to be in the first bunchand could make it harder for Cyprus to join, or even revive an old threat to veto NATOs enlargement. Sweden and Finland may press for the entire Baltic trio to get in.
Several other countries, including Germany, may want to start with a smaller number, probably the three selected for NATO. Some diplomats argue that the new Amsterdam treaty points to a smaller enlargement, because it says that, a year before the number of EU countries exceeds 20, a full-scale conference must be held to review the composition and functioning of the EU institutions. If this does indeed mean only a small intake, the competition for the first five places could be intensemaking the commissions suggestion of negotiating with six decidedly awkward. Estonia or Cyprus might then be vulnerable.
In any event, no applicant can expect a smooth entry. It is technically far trickier to join the EU than NATO. One Central European ambassador to the EU often tells his government that NATO entry concerns only his defence and foreign ministers; EU entry affects the entire cabinet. Applicants have to sign up to all the EUs swathes of accumulated legislation, the acquis communautaire, with only temporary waivers. The administrative task is immense. One official in the commission says that each of the current 15 members has perhaps 1,000 senior civil servants who are fully conversant with EU practices. In some applicant countries, the number is more like 20.
The effect of the new entrants on existing EU policies will cause even bigger problems. The commission will next week present proposals for reforming the common agricultural policy, the regional funds and the budget, alongside its opinions on enlargement. These need massive reform, whether the Union takes in new members or not.
Yet past experience shows that members will fight hard against all these changes. Obduracy will be especially tempting for countries such as Spain and Portugal that have little interest in enlargement but draw huge quantities of cash from Brussels. The risk then will be that public opinion will turn against the whole notion of enlargement. And negotiations will get caught up not just with reforming the EUs institutions but with arguments about who pays for, and who benefits from, the EU budgetan issue that has already once stymied Europe when Margaret Thatcher spent five years demanding Britains money back.
One unpalatable conclusion is that enlargement talks will take a long time. It took nine years to negotiate the entry of Spain and Portugal in 1986and these countries were relatively richer than todays candidates. No wonder some people in Brussels mutter about the new members joining no earlier than 2005.
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