Brussels backs 'big bang' plan for 10 nations

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The Independent Online

The European Union is heading for a much larger expansion than expected and may admit 10 new countries in three years' time, the European Commission said yesterday in its clearest backing yet for a "big bang" enlargement programme.

The comments, made by the European commissioner for enlargement, Günter Verheugen, raise the prospect of a rapid influx of new member states that would transform the EU. Europe already finds decision-making difficult with 15 members, and the prospect of a further 10 nations joining will increase the need for reforms.

The front-runners to join the EU had, until recently, been thought to be the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Poland and Slovenia, as well as Cyprus and Malta.

But in recent months Poland, the largest of the applicant countries, has fallen back in its negotiations, while Latvia, Lithuania and Slovakia have made good progress. That has made it increasingly difficult for Brussels to differentiate between a first-wave and second-wave of new entrants. Moreover, a "big bang" scenario may now be the only way of admitting Poland in the first wave, something most member states are keen to do.

Mr Verheugen insisted yesterday that there was "no concrete scenario", but added that "10 countries have the possibility for the first round" of EU expansion – expected to take place in 2004.

He said he did not like the term "big bang scenario", but then pointed to one of the main reasons it may take place. The intake of new population would rise by just 12 million people if all 10 realistic first-wave applicants were admitted instead of six of the original front-runners.

Brussels is aware of the potential regional problems, such as admitting the Czech Republic while its neighbours are left outside. Privately, it also accepts that a second phase of enlargement is unlikely to take place for years, making exclusion from the first group a harsh penalty.

Meanwhile, Brussels has not even begun negotiations with Turkey, a candidate that has yet to met the EU's requirements for human rights.