As many as 10 new countries could join the European Union in a "big bang" expansion early in 2004, according to a report from the European Commission.
The progress report gives the clearest hint yet that the 15-nation Union could soon be transformed, and its population expanded from 370 million to 450 million. Until recently no one thought such a drastic change was imminent.
Diplomats had previously believed that an advance guard of a few countries, such as Hungary and Poland, would make up a first wave of entrants, with the others joining later in stages.
But now Latvia, Lithuania and Slovakia have a realistic chance of entering the EU in little more than two years' time, on the same timescale as bigger countries.
The EU's expansion is seen as an attempt to unite the continent after the fall of the Berlin Wall. But it is bound to put more strain on an already sclerotic decision-making process and increase pressure for reform of agricultural and other policies.
According to yesterday's strategic document, Cyprus and Malta stand out ahead of the other applicants in terms of economic readiness, although the partition of Cyprus – the north of which was occupied by Turkey in 1974 – makes its accession highly complex.
The document then brackets together eight other countries: the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia. While it concedes there are "substantial differences" between their performance in bringing their laws and economies into line with the EU, the Commission argues that, if efforts continue, these should be able to cope with "competitive pressure and market forces within the Union in the near term".
Two other candidates, Bulgaria and Romania, are given no chance of early membership because they are lagging too far behind with vital economic reforms, while Turkey – with whom the EU has not even begun negotiations – is criticised for its poor record on human rights.
The Commission still says the would-be members need to improve their administrations and judicial systems, their fight against corruption, human trafficking and organised crime and their treatment of minorities, including central Europe's Romany population.
But behind yesterday's carefully worded document lie highly political considerations, and the position of Poland is pivotal. Its progress has been overtaken by others but Poland enjoys the powerful support of Germany which, for historical reasons, sees enlargement as politically impossible without the Poles.
If Poland is admitted the Commission knows it will have great difficulty in turning down small countries that have made rapid progress, including Slovakia, Latvia and Lithuania.
There are also concerns over the creation of barriers between neighbours by excluding Slovakia and admitting the Czech Republic or letting in Estonia but blocking the other two Baltic applicants, Latvia and Lithuania.
Two problems could disrupt the timetable. If Poland's progress over the next, crucial six months is insufficient, there will be pressure to postpone the whole process.
Cyprus could also derail the plan. Some EU member states are opposed to the admission of the Greek portion of Cyprus if there is no political agreement with the island's Turkish population.Each existing EU country would have to ratify a treaty admitting new states and the Greek Parliament would almost certainly reject any agreement that did not include the admission of Cyprus.Reuse content