"Our goal is to be ready to accede by Jan. 1, 2003," said Eduards Stiprains, one of Latvia´s EU negotiators who traveled to Brussels for the start of entry talks on Feb. 15.
"Of course the actual entry date may be later because of the quite lengthy ratification procedure, but we intend to be ready by this date," he said.
Brussels also began negotiating the terms of entry into the EU with Lithuania, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Romania and Malta, making this the largest possible expansion in the history of the Union. Entry talks have been underway for close to two years now with five other nations of the former Eastern Bloc: Estonia, Hungary, Poland, Slovenia and the Czech republic.
While Latvia may have joined the negotiating table late, the country intends to be one of the first new nations admitted to the EU. Of the countries that began talks with Brussels, only Malta - the sole nation from Western Europe that joined the negotiating table this year – shared 2003 with Latvia as its target date for entry.
Lithuania and Slovakia said they expect to be ready to enter the Union at the start of 2004, while Bulgaria indicated it could enter in 2006 with Romania following one year later.
According to Ivo Rollis, the deputy director of the European Integration Bureau, Latvia will be ready to join the Union so soon after the start on entry talks because the country has been preparing for membership even before it was invited to the negotiating table.
"A national program for the adoption of the acquis [the EU entrance requirements] has been drafted every year since 1996. Before that there were other actions."
The adoption of the EU´s tough policies regarding environmental protection is widely considered to be one of the main stumbling blocs for countries of Central and Eastern Europe whose environment was ravaged by years of neglect during Soviet times. Meeting EU environmental standards would cost candidate countries more than they could afford. But Latvian officials said they expect some flexibility in this area.
"There is wide understanding on both sides that the full implementation of the environmental provisions [of EU entry] depends on the social and economic development of the country," said Stripains. "We expect understanding in this area."
Stripains believes the most difficult areas to be negotiated have to do with agricultural policy and the extent of Latvia´s contributions to the EU budget.
"These will be the really hot items, where we will see the need for diplomacy," he said.
But despite the tough demands imposed by the entry requirements, Latvia will not seek many exemptions from Brussels.
"We intend to ask for as few transition periods as possible," said Stiprains. "It is not in our interest"
Speaking at a press conference held in Brussels at the end of the first day of entry negotiations, Latvian MP Indulis Berzins said Latvia does not want the EU to lower its standards just so new members can be admitted.
"We want entry to be negotiated with speed but also with quality."