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Last Updated: Thursday, 8 May, 2003, 18:52 GMT 19:52 UK
EU candidates swell Brussels ranks

By Oana Lungescu
BBC European regional correspondent

Acropolis
The accession treaty was signed under the acropolis
In less than a year's time, 10 more countries will join the European Union, but the enlarged EU of 25 members is already becoming a reality.

From 17 April, one day after their countries signed the EU accession treaty at a grand ceremony under the Acropolis in Athens, hundreds of diplomats and officials from the future member states were allowed into practically every meeting in the pink granite building of the EU Council of Ministers.

With almost 200 working groups meeting regularly every month, their workload has quadrupled overnight.

If all 25 participants in any meeting wanted to speak for 10 minutes, it would take four hours just to go around the table
After the tough membership talks, 28-year-old Czech diplomat Libor Bohac found the atmosphere of his first EU working group surprisingly relaxed.

But, he said, "it's as if we are jumping on a train moving at a very fast pace, because we don't know the history of most of the points we're supposed to discuss".

That is why, for now at least, the observers may choose to listen, rather than speak. The Poles and the Hungarians have taken the floor here and there, one EU diplomat said, but most of the others keep quiet.

New rules

Even when they do speak, they cannot do so at length. If all 25 participants in any meeting wanted to speak for 10 minutes, it would take four hours just to go around the table.

So, under new rules, speaking time is strictly limited to two minutes. Working languages are English and French, and there are no interpreters.

Some of the laws we're discussing are practically incomprehensible in your own language, let alone in a foreign one
Parliamentary insider
Ministers and prime ministers will also have to hone their linguistic skills. Until their countries join on 1 May 2004, they will get only limited help.

For instance, everything the Latvian prime minister tells his EU colleagues will be translated into their languages, but everything they tell him will only be translated into English, French and the other existing official languages of the EU.

Around the rectangular meeting tables in the Council of Ministers, everyone will have to squeeze a bit to make room for the 10 newcomers - with each sandwiched between representatives of existing member states.

The Poles are seated between the French and the Portuguese, while the Czechs are flanked by the Irish and the Dutch.

But despite the cooling of relations between Poland and France over Iraq, Poland's ambassador to the EU Marek Grela said his French colleague had gone out of his way to make him feel welcome.

Parliament boost

But access to Euroland is not unlimited. While the newcomers have started to receive most internal EU documents, they will not be sent papers classified as EU secrets.

Now, they are looking at us as if we came from Mars, but in a few months it will be difficult to say who's been in the EU for years and who's just about to join
EU diplomat
The European Parliament, however, is welcoming 162 observers from the future members this week. This is unprecedented in terms of sheer numbers and the rights and facilities offered to the observers.

Most have already joined one of the main European political families, with the largest group, 69, being added to the majority Christian Democrats or European People's Party (EPP).

German euro-MP Klaus Welle, deputy leader of the EPP, believes the observers will make their mark, even though they cannot speak or vote in plenary sessions.

"We are going to expand our group by one third," Mr Welle explains, "and many of these people are former prime ministers and ministers, so they won't just sit there and be quiet".

Interpreting need

But it will not be easy. Observers have to divide their time between their obligations as national MPs and their European duties.

Interpreters will only be available gradually. By next year, though, the European Parliament expects to spend one-third of its annual budget, or 300m euros, on interpreting alone.

"There is no alternative," one parliament insider said, "some of the laws we're discussing are practically incomprehensible in your own language, let alone in a foreign one".

Next week, the observers will take part in their first plenary session in Strasbourg.

It is clear that, from now on, not even French President Jacques Chirac can tell the newcomers to shut up, as he did earlier this year over the Iraq crisis.

"Now, they are looking at us as if we came from Mars," one diplomat said - "but in a few months it will be difficult to say who's been in the EU for years and who's just about to join".


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