Doubts about EU readiness as candidates meet

  • 2001-04-12
  • Aleksei Gunter
TALLINN - The members of the Luxembourg group, the six European Union candidate countries invited in the first round of EU enlargement talks, appeared coordinated when their representatives met in Tallinn on April 9. But away from the event fears were expressed that Estonia may not be ready to join the EU by the current date set for membership – Jan. 1, 2003 – because the EU is dragging its feet over decision making.

The heads of the Luxembourg group accession delegations – Estonia, Cyprus, Poland, Slovenia, the Czech Republic and Hungary – discussed a joint strategy for the next summit in Gothenburg, planned for June. They also talked about the implications of the Belgian presidency of the EU, due to start in July.

However, Alar Streimann who leads Estonian team of negotiators, said later that the plan to conclude Estonia's negotiations on entry into the EU in early 2002 is in danger, because the talks are becoming more drawn out.

In an interview with the Baltic News Service, Streimann said that the speed of decision making within the EU has always been a problem for new members.

"The further the accession is pushed back, the less chance we have of joining the European Union," he said.

This also threatens Estonia's plans to be ready for entry into the EU by the year 2003.

"Looking at the current pace of the talks, it's possible that Estonia will not be able to conclude the talks by late next winter. If the end of the negotiations is put off, we may not be talking about Estonia's Euro-readiness until 2004," Streimann said.

The progress of the talks is being jeopardized above all by the EU's failure to shape a common stance on the issue of free movement of labor, which means talks on that topic cannot be held.

"Regarding the most sensitive topic, the free movement of labor, all six countries are basically waiting for a clearer opinion from the EU," said Streimann after the four-hour meeting in Tallinn.

Pavel Telicka from the Czech delegation said it is still uncertain whether the position of the EU will match candidates' expectations. "We really hope we haven't spent all these years of preparations in vain," he said.

Streimann said several different patterns had been suggested within the EU itself.

"One option is a seven-year transition period for new members. Also a 5+2 option has been talked about, under which a five-year transition period would initially be applied to new members in the free movement of the work force, to which two more years can be added if necessary," Streimann said.

The chief negotiators in the Luxembourg group meet regularly, three or four times a year, to exchange information and coordinate their positions in the accession talks.

Latvia and Lithuania are in the Helsinki group, which also includes Malta, Slovakia, Bulgaria and Romania. According to data from Estonia's Foreign Affairs Ministry, the Luxembourg group has closed more chapters in the accession talks. Estonia, Slovenia and Cyprus have closed 18 out of 30 chapters.

The names of the Luxembourg and Helsinki groups come from the latest two rounds of the EU enlargement talks. The first was held in Luxembourg in 1997, and the second in Helsinki in 1999.

"Now the talks have reached the phase of solving substantial problems, it is essential to keep exchanging experience and finding new ways to cooperate because a harder period of talks still lies ahead," said Streimann.

He added that although all the candidate countries are different and are competing with one another in the membership race, there are a number of common interests.

"Life has proven that cooperation is the best way to protect these interests," he said.

Commenting on partnership between the candidate countries, Jan Kulakowski, the head of the Polish delegation, said Poland has been consulting closely with its neighbors Lithuania and Slovakia on questions of accession talks strategy.