EU's applicants fall short on corruption and food safety

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The Independent Online

Former Communist countries that want to join the EU next year were told yesterday to solve a catalogue of problems, from endemic corruption to poor food safety standards. The European Commission singled out Poland for special criticism.

A report highlighted 39 failings of "serious concern", of which Poland accounted for nine, as the Commission threatened that some nations might be temporarily deprived of the full benefits of membership.

Yesterday's document concluded that the difficulties were not sufficient to hold up enlargement, giving the final blessing to the EU's biggest expansion.

Meanwhile, Turkey's hopes of starting talks on joining the EU suffered a setback when the Commission said its human rights record and treatment of minorities did not match minimum European standards. The Commission said failure to reach a deal on Cyprus could be an "obstacle" to Turkey's hopes of starting membership negotiations.

Poland is by far the biggest of the 10, mainly ex-Communist, nations that will become EU members in May, and the Commission pointed to weaknesses in its preparations.

Agriculture is a main concern, with lagging food safety standards in milk and meat production highlighted. Warsaw has yet to set up local registration systems for livestock, which are essential if farmers are to receive millions of euros in EU farm handouts.

Günther Verheugen, the European commissioner for enlargement, pointed to possible measures to suspend countries' rights to sell their produce if they failed to match EU hygiene requirements.

"No food which does not meet our standards will come into the internal market," he said. Mr Verheugen said that if structures were not in place to administer farm subsidies, money for farmers "will not be moving".

The report on Poland also noted: "Corruption is perceived to be increasing from an already relatively high level in Poland. It is considered to affect all spheres of public life. There has been very little progress in combating corruption and the existing perception has been borne out in various high- profile corruption cases."

Adam Rotfeld, Poland's deputy foreign minister, said the Commission's verdict had caused "upset" in Warsaw but argued: "One should not be insulted or offended by looking in a mirror."

He added it was "not a surprise" agriculture was Poland's weakest point and that had "been known for years". Of the other incoming countries, Malta has six areas of "serious concern", Latvia five, Slovakia and Hungary four, the Czech Republic, Estonia and Cyprus three, Lithuania two and Slovenia one. Bulgaria and Romania, which hope to join the EU in 2007, received non-committal reports, but there were serious failings highlighted, particularly with Romania.

Turkey's aspirations to join were, for the first time in a Commission report, linked to settlement of the Cyprus issue.

Mr Verheugen said, while a deal on reunification of the divided Mediterranean island was not a precondition of Turkey starting talks, "we have made a link between the Turkish request to accede and the question of Cyprus".

Diplomats described that as an acceptance of political reality. The Greek part of the island is due to be admitted to the EU in May and will be one of the nations that considers whether to open membership talks with Ankara in December next year.