EU progress reports to spur membership drive

BRUSSELS – The European Commission issues its annual progress reports on enlargement today as EU member states, preoccupied with global terrorism and a looming recession, gear up for the tough task of deciding whom to let into their exclusive club by mid-2004. Diplomats and political analysts expect the much-anticipated reports – one for each of the 13 candidate countries, plus a statement on overall progress – to put a special accent on judicial affairs and administrative reform. These reports will be particularly significant, said Heather Grabbe, research director at the Center for European Reform, a London-based think tank. They’ll be more attention paid to them than in previous years, because everyone’s aware that the stakes are getting higher now, she said. Everybody’s beginning to think which countries will come in and when. A senior European diplomat agreed, adding that there is a real risk of instability in the candidate states – most of them former Soviet satellites – if they feel they’re being made to wait at the door for too long. In a fresh twist, the reports are being released at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, rather than in Brussels, underscoring its role in the European Union’s historic thrust into Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean. They also come as the EU links arms with the United States in cracking down on global terrorism, and braces for a recession that many analysts see rising on the economic horizon. Twelve nations – including Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Cyprus, Slovenia, and three Baltic states – are currently in various stages of accession talks with EU enlargement commissioner Guenter Verheugen. He is aiming to wrap up talks with as many countries as possible by the end of 2002, allowing time for the incumbent EU member states to usher in the newcomers in time for the next European Parliament polls in June 2004. Turkey is an official EU candidate, too, but it can’t start negotiations with Brussels until it is seen to have made real progress on democratic reform, human rights and respect for Kurds and other minority groups. Ultimately, the EU stands to almost double in size to 28 member states, representing a single market of 500 million people – the world’s biggest – stretching from the Iberian peninsula to the Ukraine border. Our goal is for the union to become economically and politically strong enough to offer all its members peace and security, high social standards, cultural diversity and a high quality of the environment, Verheugen has said. The most-talked-about enlargement scenario in Brussels envisions all of the current negotiating countries, except laggards Bulgaria and Romania, to be admitted all at once in a so-called big bang. But negotiations on the thorniest legislative chapters – agriculture and regional subsidies – will only start in 2002, and then against the backdrop of elections in EU heavyweights France and Germany. Billions of euros are at stake in those stages, with the incumbent member states reluctant to lavish on the newcomers the kinds of generous subsidies that now go out to their own farmers and less-developed regions. With regard to the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, Grabbe said, They haven’t actually had an impact on the tempo of the process, either positively or negatively. But like other analysts, she expected today’s reports to highlight the efforts that candidate countries can make in such terrorism-related areas as money laundering and border controls.

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