EC holds hand out as states make grade

Expansion plans set to take EU members into new millennium

The European Union yesterday launched what will probably become the most ambitious and traumatic transformation in its history, when proposals were published to expand to 21 members early in the new millennium.

Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Estonia and Cyprus were told by the European Commission that they had sufficiently proved their democratic and economic credentials to start negotiations on membership early next year.

A further five countries, Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia and Romania learnt that they had failed to qualify for the first wave of expansion, but were assured that they, too, could join once they have made the grade.

The expansion programme will produce a "stable Europe that is open to the world," the Commission promised, in a detailed exposition of the expansion programme called "Agenda 2000". The working assumption is that negotiations with the first applicants could be completed by 2002 or 2003, said Jacques Santer, the European Commission President.

Accession talks with the new members are to be accompanied by far-reaching reform of EU agricultural policies and aid funding, and the entire programme is to be financed by a "veritable Marshall plan", amounting to 75 billion ecus, (pounds 52.5bn) pledged Mr Santer.

Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, said the programme "opens a new chapter in the history of the European Union" and he welcomed the fact that Europe was "moving away from introspection" to "enhance prosperity and security throughout Europe". However, even as the proposals were being distributed early signs emerged of the fierce political battles that lie ahead, as the expansion gets under way.

After presenting his plan to the European Parliament in Strasbourg, Mr Santer was accused, by Parliament members, of risking "dangerous political division" among would-be members by inviting some former Soviet bloc countries into the club before others.

Some applicants have suggested the exam process has been a lottery. Slovakia, for example, where GDP is relatively high for Eastern Europe - at 41 per cent of the EU average - but which failed the tests because of "shortcomings in the functioning of its democracy", condemned the Commission ruling yesterday as "unjust".

Estonia, meanwhile, which has a GDP per head of about 23 per cent of the EU average, but, which, says the Commission, "presents the characteristics of democracy", easily qualified for early entry.

Mr Santer rejected allegations of bias and assured all member states that the first-wave countries were "part of a process to be engaged with all applicant countries". Annual reviews are to be instituted with each applicant to ensure they all remain on track for membership, says the Commission.

Reaction to the Commission's proposals is likely to be just as fractious among existing member states, already doubtful about the benefits and cost of enlargement. A final decision on who joins when is to be taken by heads of government at the Luxembourg summit in December.

Mr Santer reiterated yesterday that last month's Amsterdam summit, intended to re-vamp EU institutions ready for expansion, had failed, and announced that a new Inter-Governmental Conference (IGC) would be needed around 2000 to complete the job.

However, launching a new IGC could mean launching months of new introspective debate, of precisely the kind which Mr Cook had hoped was over, raising questions about the entire enlargement timetable.

Without re-vamping the EU's present structure, however, the union could simply implode. The complexities of enlargement raise staggering possibilities for day-to-day management in Brussels and Strasbourg.

For translators, for example, the accession of all 11 candidates would bring 11 new languages into the EU (Cyprus would introduce Turkish) presenting about 244 possible language combinations.

Even without an early new IGC, political infighting among member states could still alter the list of first-comers, and the timetable for accession.

Several governments have already indicated that they would have preferred a smaller "first wave" of just Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, to limit the shock to EU institutions and budget. There has also been a preference among many member states for starting the negotiations with all applicants and allowing the slow-paced to drop behind.

However, this so-called "regatta" approach could also have been viewed as an excuse for further prevarication, and the Commission bravely chose yesterday to name the names of qualifying countries - decisions widely seen to have been soundly and fairly based. Given the recent Nato decision to accept just three new members, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, the EU's approach of five plus one (a phrase which distinguishes Cyprus from the east Europeans) may yet be seen to make geo-strategic sense.

Of fundamental interest to member states in the ensuing debate will be the inevitable cuts in their own EU aid funding, as money is shifted towards helping the new members.

The phasing out of priority aid status for many EU regions, where GDP has now achieved 75 per cent of the EU average - the cut off for special funds - will reduce money flowing to millions of existing EU citizens.

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