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Monday, 1 July, 2002, 11:09 GMT 12:09 UK
Denmark seeks role in EU history
A tractor in a field
Farm reform will be one of the most contentious issues

As Denmark takes over the presidency of the EU, BBC Europe correspondent Oana Lungescu looks at its ambitious agenda for the next six months.

It was in Copenhagen that EU leaders agreed in 1993 on the main conditions to be met before countries of Central and Eastern Europe could join their club.

The so-called Copenhagen criteria include respect for democracy and the rule of law, a functioning market economy and the ability to adopt and implement all 80,000 pages of the EU rule book.

Almost a decade later, the former communist countries have implemented painful reforms and endured highly complex membership talks on everything from the quality of drinking water to the size of cages for hens.

Denmark must now preside over the most difficult stage of the negotiations. At the heart of the debate is what enlargement will cost.

Window of opportunity

Backed by the majority of Danish voters, Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen believes expansion is a historic and moral duty for the EU.

 Anders Fogh Rasmussen
Rasmussen believes no EU state will ultimately oppose enlargement
It would be a "political disaster", he warns, if there was no decision at the Copenhagen summit at the end of this year.

Many believe a delay would lead to a backlash in the applicant countries and amount to a huge blow to the EU's credibility.

He has warned repeatedly that even a small delay could result in a long postponement.

The reason is simple.

Soon the EU will turn its attention elsewhere.

In 2003 and 2004, it must focus on further internal reforms and a European constitution, while 2005 and 2006 will see fierce debates over the next budget.

As Danish Foreign Minister Per Stig Moller puts it, the window of opportunity for enlargement will be open in Copenhagen in December and then will close - probably until 2007.

Farming fight

But, to clinch a deal in Copenhagen, Denmark will need to strike a careful balance between the fears of existing members and the expectations of the future ones, particularly on agriculture.

The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) already costs the EU about 40 billion euros a year, almost half the annual budget.

If the same support was extended to newcomers, including the two million farms in Poland, Germany calculates the bill would rise by a further eight billion euros, of which it would pay a quarter.

Facing tough elections in September, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has made it clear Germany won't foot the bill.

On 10 July, the European Commission will put forward a package of CAP reforms, expected to include a gradual phasing out of direct payments to farmers.

The Commission has already proposed that farmers in the new member states should receive just a quarter of the direct payments granted to their western counterparts and wait for a decade before reaching equal level.

But, even assuming that a new German government is in place by October, the next EU summit in Brussels at the end of that month could see a fierce clash between the CAP reformers and the supporters of the status quo, particularly France.

Even though EU leaders agreed they would present a common position on agriculture to the applicant countries by early November, there are fears that enlargement could fall hostage to their debate on farming reform.

Poland and the other leading candidates, who describe the Commission's proposals on agriculture as discriminatory, want better terms.

But Mr Moller's message is blunt - any country that thinks it can hold out for a better deal is mistaken, and risks delaying membership.

No plan Bs

However, the biggest threat may come from Ireland.

In a referendum last June, Irish voters rejected the Nice Treaty, which contains all the changes needed to prevent institutional paralysis in an enlarged EU of 25 members.

And polls show that the Irish may reject the treaty again in a second referendum later this year.

Irish women vote in a referendum
The Irish could again vote against a key treaty on enlargement
Privately, EU officials say ways can be devised to overcome a rejection.

But in Denmark, where voters have rejected the Maastricht Treaty and the euro in the past, politicians are reluctant to interfere with another country's vote.

So, at least until October, the mantra in Copenhagen is "there is no plan B".

And if there's no plan B for the Irish referendum, the Danish prime minister says, only half-jokingly, that for Cyprus, there isn't even a "plan A".

In 1999, the island - one of the leading contenders for membership - was promised entry even without a solution to the long-running dispute between the Greek and Turkish communities.

While EU leaders would prefer a united Cyprus to join, they say that reunification is not a precondition.

But Turkey has warned it might annex northern Cyprus if a divided island joins.

Meanwhile, if Cyprus is left out, EU member Greece says it might veto the entry of other applicants.

Summer postponed

Bulgaria and Romania are also watching from the sidelines, even though they began accession talks two years ago.

Danish officials promise they won't be forgotten.

They could get more money to speed up membership preparations and a clearer timetable for accession.

No one expects them to join before 2007, but, to allay fears that the EU will lose appetite for enlargement, there may be a statement that the first wave of enlargement will not be the last.

So the agenda for Denmark's EU presidency is ambitious.

As well as tackling the historic challenge of enlargement, Denmark will also have to introduce more openness in the way EU ministers work, push for a reform of fisheries policy and for improved food safety controls.

Fighting illegal immigration into the EU is another priority which has been set.

With only 90 working days to achieve results and a frantic schedule, the Danish civil service has cancelled all summer holidays.

Mr Rasmussen believes no EU leader will want to be seen to oppose enlargement when it comes to it.

But he knows he faces formidable difficulties.

See also:

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14 Jun 01 | Europe
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