Balts invited to join EU family

  • 2002-12-19
  • Line Wolf Nielsen

The European Union's Copenhagen summit turned out to be the momentous occasion that many had predicted.

In a series of complex, interlocking negotiations, - ranging from a divided Cyprus to an indignant Turkey to the financial plight of Polish peasants - leaders of the EU's 15 member states embraced 10 new countries in the biggest enlargement the union has ever seen.

The enlargement deal - dubbed the "big bang" - will inflate the EU's population by 75 million to some 453 million, making it the third largest economic union in the world after China and India.

An ecstatic Romano Prodi, president of the European Commission, declared that "accession of 10 new member states will bring an end to divisions in Europe," and that "for the first time in history Europe will become one because unification is the free will of its people."

Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Danish prime minister and current head of the rotating EU presidency, spoke of "closing one of the darkest chapters in European history and opening a new one."

Of the 10 new members, eight were behind the old Iron Curtain and part of the old Soviet Bloc. The leaders of three of those, the Baltic states, were unanimous in praising their invitations to join as a truly historic moment.

Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus said, "Borders and contrasts are disappearing in an area which has long suffered from deep imbedded structural differences. I think we're witnessing a new process gaining momentum on the European continent."

His Latvian counterpart, Vaira Vike-Freiberga told The Baltic Times that she really felt her country was returning home – to be a part of Europe again.

But the euphoric statements of both EU leaders and invitee nations followed a less than harmonious day of negotiations.

The summit was marked by the fact that 25 nations, rather than the usual 15, were haggling and bargaining. Up until the last minute, several candidate countries, particularly Poland, were holding out for a better financial aid package, leading Prime Minister Rasmussen to quip that he had "got to know some prime ministers really well."

As for the Baltic states, last-minute negotiations focused on the level of EU aid to farmers and the Ignalina nuclear power plant. Lithuania agreed to close the Soviet-era plant in return for an extra 30 million euros over a period of three years to ensure the plant's safe closure.

Estonia managed to cut a deal for direct support to its farmers, which ensures that the country does not end up as a net–contributor to the EU budget right from the start of membership.

Direct support to farmers starts at 45 percent of regular EU level payments and will increase 5 percent every year. The transition period of agricultural funding was decreased from 10 to seven years.

The toughest negotiations were with Poland. Eastern Europe's largest country argued fiercely that the 40.4 billion euro to be shared by new EU members was insufficient. Polish negotiators asked for 2 billion more, but eventually they settled for half that amount.

"It was a good deal," said Polish Prime Minister Leszek Miller. "In my opinion, we can sell this in a referendum."

And in a move set to transform the European club far beyond its founding fathers' dreams, leaders accepted that they must finally take Turkey's claims to membership seriously. Turkey had wanted a date in 2003 or early 2004 to begin before the 10 newcomers formally become members in May 2004.

But the best the Danish summit could offer was to review Turkey's progress on human rights in December 2004, leaving the actual starting date for negotiations open.

EU leaders sought to accentuate the positive signal given to Turkey, with the German foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, calling the decision "a real breakthrough." Even the summit statement said: "Turkey is a candidate state destined to join the union."

The next immediate step, however, is to draw up the accession treaties for the 10 candidate countries, which will be signed in Athens, under the Greek presidency, on April 16, 2003.