Eastern expansion sparks row

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The Independent Online
SARAH HELM

The first signs of a row over the timetable for European expansion emerged yesterday when Sweden opposed German plans to let Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary join the union first.

Amid mounting confusion about the timetable for expansion, Helmut Kohl, the German Chancellor, has suggested that the political priority must be first to bring in states on Germany's eastern flank, and particularly Poland.

However, the Scandinavians are angry that such a move would exclude the Baltic states, which they say are equally qualified for EU membership. Ingvar Carlsson, the Swedish Prime Minister, voiced his opposition to the German initiative yesterday, and the issue is expected to be aired again today when heads of government meet leaders of the former communist countries in Madrid to discuss the enlargement process.

Expansion is a key ambition for the EU, but doubts have yet to be resolved about the timetable, and the effect the enlargement will have on the existing EU structures and budget. Enlargement could bring EU membership up to 27, including Cyprus and Malta.

Hungary, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Romania and Slovakia have already applied for membership and others are preparing to do so. The EU will require stringent proof of commitment to a market economy and democracy before the new members can be admitted, and long transition periods are likely.

Expanding the union is a potentially divisive issue as it will require radical reforms of agricultural and regional aid spending, potentially draining EU funds. An expanded EU will also increase the need for streamlined decision-making within its institutions. The prospect of expansion was a key reason for launching next year's Inter-Governmental Conference (IGC) on EU reform.

Several countries, including Britain, believe that the readiness of all the would-be members should be considered at the same time before assessments are made about which countries should join first.

John Major, who backs enlargement, is expected today to propose that the European Commission should conduct a study of the position of each would-be member, to be completed by mid-1997. One idea is for negotiations with the states deemed to be ready to begin six months after the end of the IGC, expected in spring 1997. The EU has already agreed to start negotiations with Malta and Cyprus at this point.

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