Swedish official rallies for EU enlargement

  • 2000-11-16
  • TBT staff
RIGA - Countries hoping to get into the European Union have a friend in Swedish Foreign Minister Anna Lindh.

Lindh began a tour Nov. 10 of the 13 countries currently seeking EU membership, stopping first in Latvia to pledge her commitment to speed up the enlargement process during Sweden's upcoming EU presidency.

Lindh applauded a European Commission decision announced last week to wrap up negotiation talks with candidate countries by the end of 2002.

"We think it might be possible to make it even more ambitious than that," she told journalists in Riga.

Enlargement, she added, will be the primary focus of the Swedish presidency, which takes over from France on Jan. 1.

Lindh reflects the opinion of the majority of Swedish citizens, 61 percent of whom favor enlargement of the European Union, according to recent surveys.

Her optimism, however, is not echoed throughout EU member countries. In France, public opinion polls on EU enlargement have dropped to as low as 28 percent recently. In Germany they are a bit higher, but not much.

Even in the candidate countries themselves there is not widespread support for membership, particularly in the Baltic countries. All three Baltic countries will some day hold a referendum on EU accession. If it were held now, according to recent surveys, neither Lithuania, Latvia nor Estonia would receive the votes needed to pass it.

In Latvia about 40 percent are in favor, while in Lithuania the figure is alarmingly lower. Even in Estonia, the unabashed EU front-runner among the Baltic countries, surveys show the referendum would fail. But Lindh and others believe that now that the end is in sight  that the European Commission has set a tentative date to end negotiations - that public opinion might change.

"There aren't as many question marks as we could see a month or a year back," she said.

Lindh also rebukes some EU officials who say that perhaps there should be a "big bang" round of enlargement, maybe in 2005.

Further delays, she maintains, will not galvanize either the countries' readiness to join or the EU's willingness to accept them.

"In trying to meet the objections and to mold popular opinion in some countries with a delay, I think it's very dangerous because it will have the absolute reverse effect and make the problems bigger and create more difficulties," she said.