EU deal with Swedes, Finns and Austrians

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NORWAY was the one that got away yesterday as Sweden, Finland and Austria all announced they had made the deadline and cleared the political hurdles to join the European Union next year, but Oslo remained unable to resolve problems with fishing and agriculture.

The only obstacle blocking Finland's, Sweden's and Austria's path to full membership and a union stretching from the Arctic to the Mediterranean is public opinion, which must be consulted by referendum and is still hostile.

Sweden was first to conclude a deal. 'Today will go down in the annals of Swedish history,' announced the jubilant European Affairs Minister, Ulf Dinkelspiel, adding: 'These talks have been rough, tough and very difficult.' Some six hours later, the Finnish Minister for Foreign Trade, Pertti Salolainen, announced: 'This is truly an historic day'. But his enthusiasm was muted: 'Not all the problems are over or solved . . . the Union is not an easy negotiating partner,' he added.

Horse-trading over phasing out an agreement limiting the number of European lorries allowed through Austria held up final accord for Vienna, but a compromise was struck allowing the ban to run a further six years and possibly longer if strict pollution limits were not met. 'We belong historically, culturally and economically to Europe. It is right we should belong to the union,' said an Austrian diplomat, confirming 'a historic day'.

At no stage was the outcome assured, and success seemed to take exhausted diplomats by surprise. In the smallest hours of yesterday it had seemed the negotiations would break down altogether.

Spain, which fears that enlargement will shift the EU's focus north and east, complained that issues of principle had been solved by throwing money at them. 'These must be the most expensive three days in history,' complained the Spanish Minister for European Affairs, Carlos Westendorp. Yet in the end, all member states agreed it was a good package and, though enlargement could not achieved be at any price, the Union needed new members to keep up the momentum generated by ratificiation of the Maastricht treaty.

Sweden, certainly, scored a notable victory in securing its principal demand that its net contribution to the Union budget - pounds 525m - could be phased in over four years. It gains substantially from a special fund created for Arctic farmers and an overall farm deal worth pounds 1.96bn over four years, of which Sweden's share in 1995 is about pounds 350m. Most of these funds are new money, found at the last minute with the help of Jacques Delors from EU coffers.

Finland, which stands to get as much out of the EU as it puts in, managed too to secure key demands, the most important of which was recognition of its difficult farming conditions, with a guarantee that the whole country will be eligible for subsidy, either from the European Union or the Finnish government.

But, as an indication of how hard it will be to turn political deals into referendum yes-votes, even the Finnish Foreign Affairs Minister, Heikki Haavisto, formerly head of the farmers' union, could not endorse the deal wholeheartedly. Asked if he could recommend EU membership to Finns, he conceded: 'If we can make these solutions work, it might be possible.'

Norway will now be under intense pressure to settle, and has been given until a meeting of EU foreign ministers on Monday to do so.

(Photograph omitted)