Free movement of people discussed again
EU foreign ministers and their colleagues from the 13 candidate states are having an informal meeting on 5 and 6 May in Nyköping, Sweden. Enlargement issues are to feature prominently on the agenda. Among those, free movement of workers and the distribution of structural funds post-enlargement remain most difficult to negotiate.
In light of the current economic and demographic dynamic of Europe, the influx of East European jobseekers after the first accessions remains one of the most widely discussed and controversial so-called challenges of EU Enlargement. On one hand, this is one of the issues that prove crucial for politicians on a national level when election times approach. On the other hand, despite being part of the same economic entity, West European economies are still yielding under the pressures of domestic businesses and competition.
Thus, it is not surprising that countries such as Germany and Austria are demanding seven-year transition periods for the free movement of people from the new accession states, and that the rest of the EU members cannot come up with a clear position on the issue. Still, Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt hopes that a common position will be established during the Belgian Presidency of EU in the second half of this year.
In addition, over the weekend meeting, Spain is expected to present its recent study showing that, together with Portugal and Greece, it will be the biggest loser of Enlargement. These three states are indeed concerned over the way the structural funds will be distributed when new countries join the EU. Currently, they receive most aid, because they have the lowest GDPs (Gross Domestic Product) in the union. Clearly, present candidates have GDPs lower than that, and thus most of the structural funds will be allocated to them once they join. This issue is one of the most sensitive in the EU even at present, because of its underlying political, rather than economic, nature.
According to the road map of Enlargement, negotiations on structural changes associated with eastward expansion are to be discussed during the Spanish Presidency of the EU in the first half of next year. It is also assumed that this will be the time when a consensus on the distribution mechanism of the structural funds will be reached.
It is expected that some of the most difficult issues of Enlargement will be tackled at the following EU Intergovernmental Conference in 2004. Moreover, candidate states who have concluded negotiations by then will also participate, regardless of whether they are already members or not. Hopefully, they could have a different say on the institutional framework of the EU.
Public support for Enlargement is dwindling
In April, Eurobarometer released the results of its latest opinion poll on Enlargement, conducted in all 15 member-states last autumn. According to the poll, only 44% of EU citizens support enlargement, 35% are opposed to it and 26% see it as a priority.
It is generally assumed that EU enlargement requires significant public support. Some of the most considerable motifs behind it are linked to the fact that the internal reorganization of the Union will have a clear effect on national and regional policy and subsidies. Thus, public opinion becomes a crucial factor in election campaigns immediately before and after accessions take place.
At the same time, the results of this poll have shown some discrepancies between public opinion and the official Government position on Enlargement. For example, support for enlargement is widest in Greece (70%), Italy (59%) and Spain (58%)—some of the states that have been rather hostile toward expansion because of the expected decrease in structural aid. And while the governments of Germany and the UK have stood strongly behind enlargement, public support there is rather weak—36% and 31%, respectively.
On the other hand, hardly surprising were the results on support for individual countries to join. Of the 13 candidates, Malta, Hungary and Poland enjoy widest support (48%, 46% and 44%, respectively), but still around the total average support for EU Enlargement (44%). At the bottom of the league are Turkey (30%) and Romania (33%). For the first time, attitudes towards the former Yugoslavian states were also measured. These fell in roughly the same category as Turkey and Romania, with Croatia scoring most (31%) and Macedonia and Bosnia-Hercegovina least (27%). Overall, these results follow neatly the general representations of the candidate states in Western media.
Aid to Slovakia resumed
The EU has temporarily resumed its pre-accession aid to Slovakia, after it launched an investigation into the misuse of the funds received.
So far, no negative implications on the implementation of the PHARE and ISPA programmes have been discovered. As Enlargement Commissioner Günter Verheugen pointed out, the case "does not affect the position of Slovakia in the accession negotiations and the assessment of the good progress of Slovakia in its integration process."
However, should fraud be proven, the Commission can recover the funds in order to safeguard the financial interests of the EU in Slovakia.
Ivana Gogova, 4 May 2001
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