After more than four years of intense negotiations and all but a few tough details remaining, the final EU enlargement agreement that will bring 10 new members to the European family, including the three Baltic states, appears to be completed.
Estonia was the first Baltic country to wrap up accession talks, as an ecstatic Foreign Minister Kristiina Ojuland succeeded in striking a late-evening deal Dec. 9 in Brussels on crucial agricultural issues.
The bargaining wasn't easy. Eleventh-hour negotiations included issues such as milk quotas, Baltic herring, steel imports, and lynx and bear hunting.
Whether Latvia and Lithuania were able to seal agreements for EU accession remained undisclosed at the time this paper went to print.
However, it was reported that Lithuania was striving for more money to close down its nuclear power plant in Ignalina and to boost security along its borders with Russia and Belarus.
For its part Latvia managed to resolve a row over Baltic herring after the commission had earlier said the fish were too small for the nets permitted under the common fisheries policy, though talks continued late Dec. 10.
However, sources in Brussels said that they too would accept the so-called Presidency packages before the start of the European Council meeting in Copenhagen, which will start Dec. 12 and is scheduled to continue for two days.
Diplomats have scrabbled to conclude complex negotiations leading to the largest expansion in EU history, encompassing 10 new members and bearing a price tag of 40 billion euros over the first three years.
Two other candidates, Slovakia and Cyprus, also managed to finalize agreements Dec. 9, though another two - Malta and Poland - held out for more money.
Poland, whose 38 million population is more than the other nine candidate countries' combined, was insisting on more direct financial aid for its large agriculture industry. Currently, the Presidency packages offer a phasing-in schedule for direct financial support for farmers (25 percent in 2004, the year of accession, 30 percent in 2005, 35 percent in 2006, and finally 100 percent in 2013), but Poland, which has a large agrarian sector, wants 40 percent for the first year.
Romano Prodi, president of the European Commission, gave a last-minute show of support to candidate countries when he suggested extra finance should be doled out.
"Why don't we simply give a little more money to the East European countries if that is what's necessary to reach agreement? I really think that's what we need to do," he told the Danish newspaper Information.
Germany, which makes the biggest contribution to overall EU funding and has its own economic difficulties, was firmly against any additional funding for aspiring countries.
Danish Foreign Minister Per Stig Möller was finally obliged to step up pressure on Poland and remind the largest candidate that it was at risk of not being able to close the accession talks.
"We want Poland in, but if Poland doesn't want to become a member of the union I have to accept it," Möller said at a press conference in Brussels, emphasizing that Poland's list of special issues for consideration was too long to be resolved by the start of the Copenhagen summit.
The summit schedule itself will be tight. The European Council will start on Dec. 12 with a meeting with the president of the convention on the future of Europe, followed by a working dinner.
On Dec. 13 there will be working sessions in the morning, and in the afternoon a series of customary meetings between the president of the European Parliament and each candidate country.
For all three Baltic states the conclusion of the accession talks will be followed by a technical finalization of the Accession Treaty, which will be signed in April 2003.
After the Copenhagen summit candidate relations with the EU will enter a new interim phase until the Accession Treaty comes into force on May 1, 2004.
Administrative preparations for this post-signature phase, particularly the participation of an active observer from each candidate country in council bodies, is being prepared.
One of the most crucial activities will be national referendums on EU membership, which in the Baltics are likely to take place on the same day in September of next year.