Luxembourg is closer to Brussels than Helsinki. That is a fact - both literally and symbolically. Despite the start of EU membership negotiations with all twelve Central and East European, as well as Mediterranean candidate countries, the playing field is nowhere near even. The so-called Luxembourg group - Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Poland and Slovenia - has a two-year head-start and the countries in it are vying for membership from a stronger position. Those in the so-called Helsinki group - Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Romania and Slovakia - remain far behind, as negotiations with these countries have just begun.
There is much talk among those in the lead amongst the Helsinki group - such as Slovakia and Latvia - about catching up to the Luxembourg group. However, a more realistic picture can be provided by drawing an analogy with the traditional triathlon. Those in the Luxembourg group are already in the marathon (though some are perceived to be barely jogging along), while the fastest countries in the Helsinki group are just reaching the half-way point in the swim - not even in sight of the bicycles yet. And perhaps the EU can be seen to be playing the role of mother nature, whipping up wind and rain, causing delays for the triathletes over issues of structural reform and key negotiating positions.
Negotiations between the EU and individual candidate states remain slow. The EU has preliminarily closed about a dozen chapters with each of the Luxembourg group; however, these concern mostly the least contentious enlargement issues, such as science and research, statistics, telecoms and information technology and similar areas. Though the EU has formally opened nearly every chapter for negotiations, ongoing structural reform within the EU itself is hampering the talks. Moreover, the member states have not managed to come up with detailed negotiating positions on contentious issues such as agriculture and free movement of people; whether the Commission will seek "transition periods" for new members on issues such as full CAP (Common Agricultural Policy) participation or employment rights is still murky.
Though the Helsinki group was secretly hoping that the slow pace of talks with the Luxembourg Six would enable them to catch up in a short time, some voiced disappointment at the slow opening of negotiation chapters. Simple issues such as statistics are already near closure for the Helsinki group; the front-runners in this set, however, only have a total of eight chapters opened. Romania and Bulgaria are even further behind, which has also disappointed national leaders.
The Helsinki Six have targeted the end of 2001 for the completion of accession negotiations. During a meeting of the foreign ministers in Tallinn on 11 October 1999 (Cyprus was represented by its chief negotiator, former President Ioannis Kasoulides), which took place symbolically just before the decision to open negotiations with all candidate countries, the group called on the Commission to accelerate talks with those already taking part in negotiations. In other words, the six countries wanted to keep their special status as "front-runners" in the now "regatta" system.
Various European Commission members and EU member state officials have hinted that the first round of enlargement could be as soon as 2003, and others expressed confidence that talks with the front-runners could wind down during or soon after Sweden's EU presidency in the second half of 2001. However, as the completion of negotiations is highly dependent on the EU's own internal structural reform, the entire process is hanging on those heated debates, not to mention on referenda in Denmark and other countries.Group entry?
The issue of an entry date has been a long-fought one among candidate states as well as member countries. No one seriously believes that all dozen candidate countries will be ready for EU membership within a very short period of time. Many countries in the Helsinki group are worried that a moratorium will fall on the laggards after the entry of the first wave of candidates - thus the impetus to "catch-up" to the Luxembourg Six.
Among the Luxembourg Six, there is fear that entry could be delayed for some in order to enable nearby countries to catch up. Though territorial contiguity is not as vital to EU enlargement as it is to NATO enlargement (without Slovakia and Austria, Hungary is technically landlocked by non-NATO members), not many officials want to see another doughnut hole in the EU map (looking at a map colour-coded according to EU membership, Switzerland makes the EU look like a doughnut). However, unless something strange happens in the next decade, that should not be a problem. Nevertheless, Hungary, usually considered the fastest of the "front-runners," would not be thrilled if its EU entry were delayed by a year or two to enable, say, the Czech Republic, to catch up.
The issue of group entry is most contentious up north in the Baltic area. Estonia, as a member of the Luxembourg Six, has frequently commented that their EU entry should not be dependent on the readiness of their neighbours (that is, Latvia and, to a lesser extent, Lithuania). Although Estonia shares an active maritime transport route to Finland, it would essentially become an island if it were to join the EU before its southern neighbours. However, this could work both ways as Latvia itself hopes that, as one of the "front-runners" of the Helsinki Six, it could ride Estonia's coat-tails into that first wave.
EU Commissioner for Enlargement Günter Verheugen in the past few weeks calmed the fears of the dozen candidate countries, especially on the issue of groupings. Verheugen said that entry by groups would be preferable for practical reasons; however, he stressed that candidates that are ready for membership should not be made to wait any significant length of time to join. This is good news for Hungary, Slovenia, and especially Estonia, as it shows the Commission going on record as saying that membership bids will not be delayed on account of aspirants' neighbours. Nevertheless, Verheugen stressed the desirability of enlargement happening in groups, illustrating this point in a Deutsche Welle broadcast by warning of what could happen if, as enlargement is staggered, Denmark becomes besieged by endless referenda.
Again, the Baltic case is most obvious when discussing groupings. If Estonia were to accede to the EU before the others, what would happen to Baltic co-operation? Will Estonia need to quickly establish external EU checkpoints along its southern border, perhaps to only have them come down within a few years? And if a moratorium is imposed after the first wave of enlargement, would it be more sensible to bring in Latvia even if it is not quite ready, leaving Lithuania aside, or to leave Latvia out, in order to let it fully prepare and to help Lithuania along? In these countries, EU entry is also seen from a security perspective, as NATO entry is still years away - if it materialises at all, that is.
Slovakia also presents a problem in this situation. Again, would Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary have to erect EU external border points with Slovakia, knowing that they will likely come down within a few years? How awkward would Slovakia feel if the country ends up surrounded by the EU without being part of it? Would it provoke public disenchantment with the process and fuel negativity similar to that which arouse when the country was bypassed in Luxembourg by the European Council and by NATO in Washington? If EU enlargement happens according to the current groupings, Slovakia will literally and figuratively be sitting in the mouth of the EU, with the Tatra mountains looking suspiciously like fangs.Blue flag over Europe
As the Portuguese presidency of the EU winds down, the enlargement process is continuing down its normal path, with aspiring countries taking several small steps towards Brussels. With hopes that all negotiation chapters will have been opened within less than a year, the Luxembourg Six are thinking more about issues such as referenda and EMU (European Monetary Union) membership. Although the process has been criticised by many as slow, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is starting to become visible in Budapest, Ljubljana, Nicosia, Prague, Tallinn and Warsaw. Though Poland faces tough talks over agriculture and Cyprus has to work out its internal politics, the triathletes are starting to count the miles to the finish line and to prepare for the final sprint.
On the other hand, the rainbow remains elusive for most of the Helsinki Six. Even the three "front-runners" of the group are nowhere near the beach yet, let alone the bicycle racks. Some worry about Malta's conviction in the integration process, especially if the next general elections bring the eurosceptics back into power. Slovakia is facing difficult problems with its government, compounded by the spectre of the looming Vladimír Mečiar. Latvia is plagued by successive government crises - usually linked to privatisation and the inability to separate politics and big business. Months after the joyous Helsinki European Council decision, the euphoria is gone and has been replaced by a heavy dose of reality.
Mel Huang, 3 May 2000