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EU Enlargement Thursday, 12 March, 1998, 09:26 GMT
Brussels prepares for tough discussions
EC HQ in Brussels
The European Commission building in Brussels
The European Union is preparing for its most ambitious and arguably most challenging enlargement to date, writes Oana Lungescu in Brussels.

'This is not like joining a tea-party, it's going to be very tough', that is the terse advice to the former communist applicants from Klaus van der Pas, a spokesman for the European Commission. Mr van der Pas is well qualified to comment as he was in charge of negotiating Sweden's accession to the EU five years ago. He will lead the Commission's new enlargement taskforce which will spring into action at the end of March.

In this crucial post Mr van der Pas will have to juggle six separate negotiating teams with six very different countries -- to say nothing of the other five waiting in the wings. The European Commission has created 20 new posts for the 40 strong task-force and officials from all departments will be involved in this complex operation.

Unlike the negotiations with prosperous Sweden, Denmark and Finland, which lasted a year, the EU is now preparing for a long haul. The European Commissioner in charge of enlargement, Hans van den Broek, says his team cannot help smiling whenever a minister from an applicant nation declares his country will be ready to join in one or two years.

Even optimists foresee tough talks in areas such as agriculture, the environment and the free movement of people and the more likely entry date for the best prepared candidates is no earlier than 2003.

A week a month in meetings

Legally, the responsibility for successful negotiations lies with EU member states and therefore with their ministers who gather in Brussels every month. Enlargement talks will put particular pressure on foreign ministers.

According to some analysts, they could spend up to a week every month ensconced in meetings with the candidates.

All over Central Europe, small armies of diplomats and experts are preparing their negotiating positions. Most applicants have already appointed their chief negotiators, often former ambassadors to the EU and for the more far-sighted, moving premises has become a priority.

Marble and glass elegance

Next spring, Poland will open a new mission of grey marble and glass on an elegant avenue in Brussels. At a cost of over five million dollars, it can house about one hundred diplomats when Poland joins the EU.

A much smaller country such as Slovakia, which won't even start proper negotiations in March, is putting about seven million dollars into new premises at a stone's throw from the European institutions.

Under a new twinning arrangement, civil servants from EU members are sharing their expertise with the candidates. The Slovenes for instance will require help during the negotiations from countries such as Austria and Ireland, who they think faced similar problems with farming or financial services.

Negotiations unlike any other

To put it brutally, Klaus van der Pas says that there is not much to negotiate about. In fact, the new members simply have to adopt and implement the 80,000 pages of European legislation, the so-called acquis communautaire. The only negotiations will be about any transitional periods the applicants need for the more difficult areas, but, EU officials stress, this time there will no opt-outs.

And there is no opt-out for the EU either, unless it reforms its costly farming and regional aid policies, subsidies to the new members will take up the whole of its budget. There will be painful changes to its institutions too.

Under the current system, the new members would have enough votes in the Council of Ministers to overturn any decision of the current ones and the European Commission would become too unwieldy to be effective. In fact, says one insider, the lengthiest and most arduous negotiations won't be the ones with the candidates, but the ones within the Union itself.

Europe Today - a news programme from the BBC World Service about Europe for Europe

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12 Feb 98 | Europe
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