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Saturday, 14 December, 2002, 17:23 GMT
Hurdles on road to EU expansion
People cross the new City Bridge (Stadtbruecke) across the river Oder between the German city of Frankfurt, left, and Polish city of Slubice
East Europeans still have to be convinced of the benefits

For the EU hopefuls, enlargement talks have been a marathon that started almost five years ago.

Six countries - Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Estonia and Cyprus - began negotiations on entry terms in March 1998.

Six more - Slovakia, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Romania and Bulgaria - followed suit two years later.

Romania and Bulgaria, the poorest applicants, have trailed behind the rest.

However after two days in Copenhagen discussing the thorniest of all issues - money, the other 10 now have an invitation to join the club in 2004.

But it's not over yet.

Bears and beer

All of the details agreed in Copengahen will be set down in a 6,000 page accession treaty for the 10 candidate countries.

Prospective new members
Czech Republic

It will include all the agreements made in the 30 areas - or chapters - of negotiations, ranging from the size of cages for laying hens, to environmental standards and the level of excise duties on cigarettes.

For countries like Estonia or Latvia, the treaty will also include the exact size of Baltic herring they can fish and eat, and how many lynx and brown bears they can shoot every year.

Over the next few weeks, the accession treaty will be completed by lawyers from the EU and the candidate countries, who have been busy drafting it in the last year.

It will then be translated in all the 11 languages of the EU and those of the candidate countries.

On 16 April, the treaty will be signed by the 25 leaders of existing and future EU members at a ceremony in Athens, the cradle of European democracy.

The next difficult stage of enlargement will then begin - ratification.

Referendum wave

The treaty has to be ratified by parliaments in all 15 EU countries.

It may take longest of all in federal Belgium, where it has to go through no less than seven different ratification procedures.

Polish farmers on a main road
It is unclear how Poland's farming lobby will react to the subsidy deal
And it will be subject to national referendums in all the candidate countries, except Cyprus.

The first referendum is likely to be held in Malta in March - and it may also prove the trickiest, since the small Mediterranean island is politically divided over EU entry.

Many fear a loss of sovereignty.

The same concern may emerge in the Baltic countries, which gained their independence from the Soviet Union just over a decade ago.

But there is a suggestion to hold the referendum in all three countries at once - on 23 August, an emotional date for the Balts, marking their annexation by Moscow under the Stalin-Hitler Pact of 1940.

In Central Europe, there are plans to hold a cascade of referendums, starting in the country with the highest popular support for EU membership - Hungary. Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Poland will follow.

It is hoped that a series of successful results will influence public opinion in the countries where support is lower.

It remains to be seen how Poland's vocal farming lobby will assess the results achieved in Copenhagen.

For the Poles, the conclusion of the talks came on another symbolic day - 13 December.

It was on this day in 1981 that martial law was declared, followed by a clampdown on the Solidarity trade union.

But if Poles decide that 13 December, 2002 has been a positive turning point for their country, enlargement will enter its home stretch.

If all goes to plan, 10 more countries and 75 million people will join the European Union on 1 May, 2004, putting an end to the Cold War east-west division of the continent.

History will at last catch up with geography.

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See also:

14 Dec 02 | Media reports
13 Dec 02 | Europe
13 Dec 02 | Europe
13 Dec 02 | Europe
11 Dec 02 | Europe
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