The European Union Nov.18 told the 10 candidate countries set to join in 2004 that demands for more money were "non-negotiable," as the clock ticked down to the bloc's showpiece enlargement summit next month.
The 15-member EU would like to have all the preparations complete in time to make the Dec. 12-13 summit in Copenhagen a glittering exercise in continent-building, a decade after the Iron Curtain crumpled into scrap.
But the 10 largely agricultural candidates are holding out for more farm aid as the haggling intensifies in the run-up to the meeting in the Danish capital, where they will receive formal invitations to join the EU.
EU foreign ministers began two-day talks here with a meeting with the members-in-waiting: Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia.
Danish Foreign Minister Per Stig Moeller said funds were limited. "The 10 candidates must realize that it's not a self-service buffet," he said, according to the Danish news agency Ritzau.
"We have a framework which has been agreed on for a long time and there is no more money than has been already put on the table."
Moeller said any additional money would be confined to helping candidates join the EU's Schengen Agreement - scrapping border controls among participating states - and for decommissioning Soviet-era nuclear power plants.
Many of the hopefuls are unhappy with the financial deal presented by EU leaders last month, after tough haggling at a Brussels summit between EU heavyweights France and Germany over farming subsidies.
The candidates are notably displeased with the timetable for phasing in direct farm aid after the EU leaders agreed to grant them 25 percent of the current level of payments, rising to 100 percent by 2013.
At a meeting in Warsaw on Nov. 15, the prime ministers of the 10 candidates called for more money and sooner, arguing for full farming subsidies by the end of 2006.
EU Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen, however, said time was "running short" before Copenhagen and the results of last month's Brussels summit were "non-negotiable."
"I urge you therefore to focus on concluding the process, avoid burdening the negotiations on the final package with requests that are non-starters, and show the necessary flexibility," he said in a message to the aspirant nations.
Also, the EU fixed May 1, 2004, for its date when the candidates will enter the union. The decision, reached on Nov. 18, will give candidate countries four extra months needed to ratify the accession treaty - running to more than 6,000 pages - in each of the 25 countries involved, officials said.
Earlier it had been decided to make Jan. 1, 2004, the enlargement date.
Under EU budgetary rules, the candidates would pay less in monthly EU contributions if they join in May rather than January, but they would still receive the full annual amount of catch-up aid.