Eastern enthusiasm dampened by EU leaders

SANTA MARIA DA FEIRA, Jun 22, 2000 -- (Reuters) The European Union on Tuesday dampened the hopes of frontrunning membership candidates of a speeding up in the enlargement process, giving no hint at a two-day summit of a timetable for joining.

Meeting for their six-monthly summit in northern Portugal, the 15-nation bloc's leaders promised to keep up the momentum of the eastern enlargement talks, but gave no sign that the bloc would accelerate the pace.

Conclusions adopted at the end of the two-day summit "reaffirms the priority for the Union of the enlargement process...(and) reiterates the commitment of the Union to maintain the momentum of the accession process".

The wording could come as a disappointment to six front-running candidates Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovenia, Estonia and Cyprus, which entered EU membership talks over two years ago.

They are impatient to conclude talks in 2001, allowing them time to join the EU on January 1, 2003. They have become increasingly concerned at what they consider to be a lack of enthusiasm and foot-dragging by the EU.

The six have been looking for signs that the bloc will give some kind of timing for concluding membership talks at its end-year summit in Nice, France, an idea for which most EU countries have little enthusiasm.

All the EU would say is that at Nice it would "review progress on enlargement and consider how to take forward the accession process".

EU officials and diplomats, and even some diplomats from the applicant countries themselves, privately acknowledge that the 2003 date is over-ambitious and expansion is more likely to happen in 2005.

European Commission President Romano Prodi told a news conference at the end of the summit that it was important that the expansion be well prepared to meet the concerns of public opinion in the EU member states.

The concerns were highlighted earlier this year when the anti-immigrant Freedom Party joined a controversial coalition government in Austria, riding public fears of an influx of eastern European workers and an increase in crime.

In another sign that the EU does not share the candidates' ambitious timetable, Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel, whose country will hold the EU presidency in the second half of 2001, said he did not think his country would oversee the end of talks.

"To say that it can finish under the Belgian presidency, I think that's very optimistic," he told reporters, saying Belgium would try to inject a "decisive momentum" into the talks.

He said the EU's expansion talks would only pick up speed if EU leaders meet a deadline at the Nice summit for agreeing the internal reforms which the EU needs to make to take in up to 13 new members.

Six other countries that joined EU membership talks two years later than the others received slightly more encouragement from the EU leaders.

Slovakia, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Romania and Bulgaria entered talks only in February, having fulfilled the EU's entry criteria later than the others.

The EU conclusions said that talks in all the remaining areas of negotiations could be opened "as early as possible in 2001" with countries from that grouping which progress well in the negotiations.

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