BUDAPEST – European Union candidate states have welcomed EU pledges that the anti-terror war will not divert them from enlargement eastward – some even expressing hope it will speed the bloc’s expansion. The US-led war, which is dominating the EU’s foreign policy agenda, has raised fears among some that an economic slowdown in Europe could temper its enthusiasm to take in poorer ex-communist countries too soon. But in fact, central Europe’s emerging economies could benefit from the global downturn, as investors flee other emerging regions like southeast Asia and Latin America more directly dependent on the United States. The prospect of EU expansion has come within reach, Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban said Thursday. This is mainly due to Hungary’s economic success, which will not suffer the effect of a general chill in the world economy that can be observed after the September 11 attacks, Orban said. Twelve mostly ex-communist countries are vying to join the 15-member European Union, and leading candidates including Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovenia are hoping to be on board in time for 2004 Euro-elections. But just as they enter the final straight for membership negotiations, the world’s attention has been ripped away toward the Taleban’s Afghanistan. The global anti-terror war overshadowed a special EU summit last week in the Belgian city of Ghent. But EU leaders were keen to stress that EU enlargement will not suffer, either from lack of attention or due to geopolitical strategizing like that which has transformed Russia’s relations with the West in the last six weeks. I commit myself, and I commit the European Commission to maintain our timetable, which will not be changed by a single day because of the events of September 11, said the EU executive body’s president Romano Prodi. Candidates agree. The Cyprus government for example believes the war against terrorism has served as a catalyst for the EU enlargement process. It seems the enlargement process has quickened pace and the timetables for fixed targets are moving along satisfactorily. EU officials also agree with this view, Cyprus government spokesman Michalis Papapetrou told AFP. Bulgaria does not fear an enlargement slowdown due to the terror war, said Bulgarian foreign ministry spokeswoman Elena Poptodorova. On the contrary, we expect enlargement to be accelerated, she added. Poland, the largest ex-communist EU hopeful, has slipped dramatically down the candidates’ list in recent months, falling behind on key negotiating chapters with Brussels. But even Warsaw drew comfort from a visit this week by Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, who holds the EU’s rotating presidency, saying that he had come with a message from the 15… to encourage Poland to make efforts to accelerate the negotiating process. One note of caution came from Slovakia, which said the EU risks changing its priorities due to the new global security environment. EU enlargement commissioner Guenther Verheugen said during a visit to the Slovak-Hungarian border earlier this month that the EU could give more money to ex-communist candidates to strengthen border controls against terrorists. The new situation created since September 11 could influence negotiations in the coming weeks, notably in the field of justice, said Bratislava’s deputy premier in charge of EU integration, Maria Kadlecikova. But Estonia, a Baltic front-runner for early EU entry, said it was encouraged by a recent remark by Verhofstadt in Ghent that the Belgian EU summit in December in Laeken could draw up a list of those likely to join first, even though the remark was later dismissed by his foreign minister. The first signs are that the changes in the international situation and the war on terrorism will not slow down the EU enlargement, Estonia’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Tiina Maiberg told AFP. In Laeken at the latest, it should be clear what the exact enlargement scenario will be: How many countries, and when, will join the EU, she added.