EU hopefuls angle for entry: Little progress made on key issues as enlargement deadline approaches

THE EUROPEAN UNION is gripped with acute growing pains that a strict diet of fish did little to alleviate. Yesterday saw the first meeting in a marathon week-long negotiating session designed to hammer out finally the membership terms for the four new applicants - Austria, Norway, Finland and Sweden.

Though much of the groundwork has already been laid as the four race towards a self-imposed 1 March deadline, there is still little progress on the key issues of agriculture, regional policy, transport and fishing. On the last, the twelve existing EU members cannot even agree on a common front to present to the new applicants. 'Many countries are disappointed at the lack of significant progress; it is sometimes almost as if the Union 12 were petitioning the others for memberhip and not the other way round,' an EU official said yesterday.

If negotiations cannot be completed by 1 March, or soon after, it will be difficult for the four applicants to hold ratification referendums in time to join the EU by their target date of 1 January. The enlargement project then risks running into the sand, with dire consequences for the countries of Eastern Europe that hope ultimately to follow where the others have led. Positions are so entrenched that it is being widely suggested the talks will overrun their schedule (though not by much) and that it may prove impossible for all four - Norway in particular - to join at the intended time.

Optimism still reigns. Recent polls indicate a warming of hitherto overwhelmingly cool public opinion in the four applicant countries. 'Things look difficult at the moment but it is in the nature of a classic negotiation like this that no one gives way until the last possible minute,' a diplomat suggested yesterday.

The first item on yesterday's menu - fish - stuck in several gullets. Norway, whose insistence on the need to continue whaling and seal-hunting has won it no friends, is seeking open access to markets, waters and the fish that swim in them. But for the EU's big fishing nations, Oslo is offering too little in return. Irish and British fisherman, for example, whose own fish are migrating slowly west, want reciprocal access to Norwegian waters.

The Spanish and Portuguese, who see little gain in enlarging the EU, do not wish to see their fishermen disadvantaged by fresh competition. Fishing waters are further muddied by the fact that these two nations are also seeking to wrest concessions from their existing EU partners under cover of the enlargement talks.

Spain is also leading the attack on the financing of the enlargement venture with a demand that budget contributions from new members be paid directly to their southern neighbours, under the EU principle that economic regional imbalances should be smoothed out where possible.

Other states, such as Britain, believe any net contributions should be used to lighten the budget demands on everybody else. Still others say the money should be paid into a 'Community chest'.

Recent figures published by the Commission suggest the net contribution of the applicant countries will, however, be less than many had calculated. Finland actually stands to receive more in EU benefits than it will pay in dues. Sweden and Austria will underwrite most of the membership fees, but together the four will contribute only about pounds 1.12bn annually to EU coffers - less than Britain's pounds 2bn contribution.

Another tricky dossier, transport, was complicated by Switzerland's decision over the weekend to ban, within 10 years, foreign lorries from crossing the country's alpine regions. That traffic is likely to pass through Austria, strengthening Vienna's argument that in the interests of environmental protection it too should be allowed to limit lorries until it has developed a proper infrastructure for rail freight.