Tuesday, March 10, 1998 Published at 19:06 GMT
What can go wrong on the road to enlargement?
Eastern Europe has only just emerged from a forty-year political time warp.
No previous enlargement of the European Union can compare with the expansion to include central and eastern Europe. The EU is planning to increase its population by a third, but its GDP by barely 5%.
Although Spain, Greece and Portugal were economically weak when they joined the EU, they had civil societies and established legal systems.
The central and eastern European countries have only just emerged from a fifty-year political and economic time warp.
A number of issues are likely to delay the process of enlargement.
The net contributors to the EU budget believe that enlargement can go ahead without increasing the EU budget. The net recipients are reluctant to lose the EU grants that have helped them progress economically. Germany and the Netherlands are even campaigning for a net reduction in their contributions to the EU budget.
However, the European Commission argues that it would not make sense to offer new member states full access to the regional aid budget as these countries would never be able to absorb more than 4% of their own GDP productively. The British presidency thinks even that figure is too high.
Another issue concerning the CAP is how soon the new member-states would have full access to it. This is likely to be delayed until the economies of accession countries are more reformed. Any other approach would be prohibitively expensive.
It is likely that the EU will insist on long transition periods, before certain goods can be exported freely to the EU. When Spain and Portugal joined the Union, they were both forced to accept lengthy transition periods for their agricultural products. Therefore these countries are unlikely to be over-generous in dealing with the newcomers from the east.
Long transition periods in establishing the freedom of movement of labour are also likely to be argued for, particularly by Germany.
How soon the aspiring members can assume the full rights and obligations of the present 15 members of the EU club will be debated. The most difficult subjects are social and environmental policy.
Any problems establishing a European single currency will cause a political crisis and certainly delay the enlargement process.
The European Commission wants another inter-governmental conference as early as possible in the new millennium, in order to streamline decision-making and institutions in anticipation of new members.
At present, no-one expects a long-running IGC on the lines of Maastricht or Amsterdam, but it is too early to predict the outcome of a discussion which must be resolved among the 15 existing member states. A failure to agree on institutional reform could easily delay enlargement.
Finally, a lack of interest among the European public can only lead to lack of focus on progress in enlargement among EU politicians.
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