Britain to push for a firm deadline on next phase of EU expansion

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The Independent Online

Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, will indicate for the first time today a significant strengthening of British support for EU enlargement to the east, by calling for a target date for the end of negotiations with countries applying to join.

Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, will indicate for the first time today a significant strengthening of British support for EU enlargement to the east, by calling for a target date for the end of negotiations with countries applying to join.

In the most explicit expression of British support for the candidate countries, Mr Cook will also challenge German-inspired ideas of delaying expansion pending a new round of EU internal reforms.

Although the idea of a target date has been championed on occasion by the European Commission, EU member states have been wary of making such a commitment.

The Foreign Secretary will argue today that the time has come to consider doing so, and that the European Union should stick to the timetable outlined in Helsinki last December when the member states agreed to be ready to welcome new members by 2003. Applicant countries hope that the deadline envisaged by Mr Cook is the end of 2001.

Mr Cook's speech, to be made in Budapest to an audience of Hungarian ambassadors, reflects growing concern in London that the pace of Europe's expansion is slowing. Although the Italian premier recently spoke out in support of the applicant countries, Mr Cook will present Britain as the leading champion of expansion among the existing 15 member states. One diplomat from an applicant country last night described Mr Cook's ideas as "music to our ears".

Although France, which holds the presidency of the EU, professes support for the project, British officials are sceptical of their commitment and concerned that enlargement could be put back to 2005.

Germany recently suggested that once this year's treaty change is out of the say, there should be a second attempt at reform before 2004 to resolve some of the EU's more fundamental problems. That idea will be rejected by Mr Cook today when he argues that work on future inter-governmental conferences (IGC) should not delay enlargement, and the first new members should join the EU before the another IGC is concluded.

Underlining the commitment to expansion the Foreign Secretary will call for concessions under which applicant countries are given several years' exemption from the need to meet some costly European legal requirements.

The most advanced of the 12 candidate countries, plus Turkey, are Hungary, Poland, Slovenia, Estonia, the Czech Republic and Cyprus.

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