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Wednesday, 14 November, 2001, 18:45 GMT
Eastern Europe gears up for 'Big Bang'
EU flag
Will EU hopefuls get a warm welcome in Brussels?
By Central Europe correspondent Ray Furlong

The European Commission's annual reports on the progress made by candidate states in preparations for membership of the European Union have met a warm response in most East European capitals.

The reports suggest the EU is contemplating membership for 10 countries in 2004 - an optimistic outlook that many candidates would have been wary of voicing out loud just a few months ago.

As the Warsaw daily Zycie put it: "Brussels is heading for a 'Big Bang' on enlargement, which is the best scenario for Poland.'


If the objective of this report is to mobilise candidate states to act, then it has served its function well

Polish minister Jerzy Plewa
Poland has been a cause of concern for both the EU and other candidate states, as its entrance talks stalled over the last year.

Even less prominent candidates, like Slovakia, have overtaken it in terms of the number of negotiating subjects, or "chapters" closed - and suggested they wouldn't wait for Poland to catch up before joining the EU.

The progress reports suggest this won't be necessary.

But the EU has also pointed out that Poland has lots to do, particularly on agricultural reforms.

Polish President Aleksaner Kwasniewski
Poland has been lagging behind other EU hopefuls

"If the objective of this report is to mobilise candidate states to act, then it has served its function well," said deputy agriculture minister Jerzy Plewa, who is responsible for getting Poland's farms into shape ahead of EU entry.

The Rzecpospolita newspaper says the hope offered of membership in 2004 is something Poland has been waiting several years for - but the report also has a warning.

"Brussels has not guaranteed that Poland will be among those chosen for EU membership in two years. If our government wants this to happen, it must accept several hard conditions," the daily says.


Lots of praise, less and milder criticism than last year - that's basically how we can characterise the European Commission's report on Hungary's progress for the last year

Hungary's Nepszava newspaper
These include agreeing to a transition period lasting up to seven years on access to EU labour markets, and partially relinquishing EU subsidies for farmers during the first years of membership.

There are already signs the Polish Government is ready for unpopular compromises.

A day after the progress reports were made public, the Foreign Minister, Wlodislaw Cimoszewicz, announced a climb-down over sales of land to foreigners once Poland is a member of the EU.

In Prague, too, there was a generally positive response. The Czech Prime Minister, Milos Zeman, underlined that the report recognises his country had a "functioning market economy' - reversing a perceived slight from the year before, when the report said it "could be regarded as a market economy".


I don't see why the EU emphasises the civil service law so much - it's a failure to understand our situation

Czech opposition leader Vaclav Klaus
As in most countries, there is widespread acceptance that the EU report points out problems which need to be tackled.

Mr Zeman noted criticism on the lack of a law to safeguard a de-politicised civil service - and said opponents of a government bill to rectify this should bear the EU's position in mind.

But not everyone toes the EU line. Euro-sceptic Czech opposition leader Vaclav Klaus said he could not take some of the criticisms in the report seriously.

"I don't see why the EU emphasises the civil service law so much. It's a failure to understand our situation," he said.


We are ready to make sacrifices and meet our commitments

Romanian Prime Minister Adrian Nastase
In other countries, Euro-scepticism is a luxury they can't afford.

Romania, told it was unlikely to be ready by 2004, reacted with fighting talk.

"We are ready to make sacrifices and meet our commitments," said Prime Minister Adrian Nastase.

Meanwhile, the Slovak press picked up a coded warning in the EU reports - which said that all countries meet the political criteria for membership, but added a qualifying "for the time being" in Slovakia's case.

The daily Sme said this was referring to the fact that the country's former leader, Vladimir Meciar, is currently riding high in opinion polls - and "could indicate certain fears over political developments here after next year's elections."

Slovakia was excluded from Nato enlargement in 1998 due to Mr Meciar's authoritarian style in office, as well as from EU entry talks in 1996.

Nearly all of the countries in the region - including front-runners Hungary - were criticised by the EU for not doing enough to help their Roma minorities.

But it seems they are so used to this kind of talk that hardly anyone bothered commenting on it.

"Lots of praise, less and milder criticism than last year - that's basically how we can characterise the European Commission's report on Hungary's progress for the last year," wrote the Budapest daily Nepszava.

It's a fair summary of how the report went down across the region.

See also:

13 Nov 01 | Europe
EU hopefuls on track
12 Nov 01 | Business
Prodi calls for economic discipline
21 Sep 01 | Business
EU finance ministers in crisis talks
20 Sep 01 | Business
EU considers aid for airlines
10 Jul 01 | Business
Ministers reject EU tax plan
14 Jun 01 | Europe
The candidate countries
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