New EU nations start hard-sell

After the euphoria of clinching an invitation to join a new, enlarged EU of 450 million people, the former Communist countries of eastern Europe yesterday embarked on the task of selling membership to their sceptical electorates.

In Copenhagen, where the agreement was reached after 24 hours of haggling over the subsidies to be paid out from Brussels, there was unalloyed celebration at the deal which heals the historic division of Europe. President Aleksander Kwasniewski of Poland hailed the deal as "a happy end". Peteris Vinkelis, a political adviser to the Latvian premier, Einars Repse, said simply: "Mr Repse is in Copenhagen drinking champagne and I am here in Riga drinking Cognac – need I say more?"

But with a motley collection of Eurosceptics and nationalists across eastern Europe gearing up for referendum battles on EU entry, politicians began selling the merits of their accession deal in earnest. After a day of drama and horse-trading, the 10 nations – Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Hungary, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Cyprus and Malta – accepted an improved package of subsidies worth €40.8bn (£26.3bn) between 2004 and 2006.

Poland, which has won a reputation for being the leader of the candidate countries' awkward squad, held out longest and hardest. It argued that, when the new nations' contributions to the EU were taken into account, they could gain, in total, no more than €12bn. A deal was finally done on Friday night when the Polish Prime Minister, Leszek Miller, accepted an improved offer from the Danish presidency of the EU, after the last of a series of tense meetings.

Complex funding rules were waived to allow Poland to spend €1bn, earmarked for helping its poorer regions, as it wishes. The Poles also won an extra €108m to beef up frontier controls and clinched larger milk quotas – a gain which could be crucial in reassuring the country's large and restive farm sector. With Warsaw accepting, the other nine nations fell into line,after being offered €300m divided between them. This was only a fraction of the extra €2bn the applicants had sought, gaining Mr Rasmussen the reputation of a tough and efficient negotiator.

As he concluded the marathon negotiations, which began in March 1998, Mr Miller said: "Our people surely deserve this chance for the future generations." He pointedly thanked Pope John Paul II for his support of Poland's bid. Warsaw knows that it will need all the support it can get if it is to win a referendum next year on the membership terms. The other nine candidate countries will also put the deal to their electorates. The first is likely to be Hungary – where support for EU membership is solid – in April.

But after the membership talks, the focus of domestic debate in several nations may shift from economic advantage to possible restrictions on their new-found freedoms from joining yet another bloc.

"We deserved a good deal because of our bitter past, being fully integrated into the Soviet Union with deportations to Siberia and all the rest of it," said Andris Kesteris, Latvia's chief negotiator. But he added that a referendum was a difficult issue, "because small nations are often very distrustful of becoming part of large organisations".

The EU in numbers:

Member states: 15 now, 25 in 2004

Population: 375 million now, rising to 450 million

GDP: £5,370bn now. The 10 new members have a combined GDP of only £214.5bn, the size of the Netherlands' economy

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