Meeting in Brussels under the chairmanship of Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, they gave the European Commission a tough new deadline: finish delivering formal opinions on membership applications from Sweden, Finland and Austria by the end of September. The opinions, known in the EC's French jargon as an avis, will then allow the ministers to discuss the new members at a meeting on 4 October.
The Commission has already looked at Austria, and is expected to produce its Swedish report at the end of July. Because Brussels is about to close for its summer holiday, yesterday's move gives Commission officials little over a month to get through a huge list of outstanding Finnish issues - covering everything from agricultural policy to defence and from immigration to the environment.
There are seven formal applications on the table. Although Turkey, Malta and Cyprus applied for membership earlier, they have been told that they are unlikely to win admission this century.
As members of the European Free Trade Association (Efta), Sweden, Finland, Austria and Switzerland have already signed a wide-ranging free-trade agreement with the EC that covers some two-thirds of all the ground necessary to become fully-fledged members. Another factor making their applications more attractive to Brussels is that they would end up net contributors to the tune of almost pounds 1.5bn.
Yesterday's meeting spelt bad news for Switzerland because the Commission was given a further two months to deliver its avis on the Swiss application in time for a ministerial meeting early in December. The extra time reflects a widespread fear in the Community, which the Swiss have so far failed to dispel, that their history of isolation and their system of direct democracy by referendum may delay and aggravate the negotiations.
Although the formal hope remains that the Swiss application will be ripe for decision along with the other three at the Edinburgh summit in December, any delay could jeopardise its chances of joining with them. The most important problem common to all the negotiations will be how to reconcile the countries' neutral tradition with their new European obligations under the Maastricht treaty.
The new course the EC set itself last year includes a common foreign and security policy immediately and a commitment to a possible future defence policy. Both issues are likely to be the focus of a conference under British auspices in September.Reuse content