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EU members, applicants at odds

Blair, Prodi
Blair, left, and Prodi share a laugh at the EU summit  

By CNN European Political Editor Robin Oakley

GOTHENBURG, Sweden (CNN) -- At a summit once again disfigured by anarchist street rioting, EU leaders have been struggling to reassure the 13 applicant countries who want to join the 15-nation bloc that they are not dragging their feet on EU enlargement.

A deal to name a firm date for concluding negotiations with some of them has proved unattainable.

Goran Persson, the Swedish Prime Minister and current holder of the rotating EU presidency, has tried to get his colleagues to agree a timetable for settling at least with some of the best qualified would-be members like Hungary, Slovenia, Estonia, Poland and the Czech Republic.

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EU Summit - Gothenburg, Sweden
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But an agreement would require unanimity and Anna Lindh, the Swedish Foreign Minister, admitted “we have big but not unanimous support”.

Some leaders, like Lionel Jospin, the French Prime Minister, have argued that offering a firm date would weaken the EU’s hand in negotiations.

There was no obvious progress either in settling another key problem in expanding the EU, the referendum in Ireland which saw Irish electors reject by 54-46 per cent the Nice Treaty, agreed last December by the EU leaders.

This set out changes in the EU constitution to ensure that enlargement does not lead to paralysis in decision-making

It has to be ratified by all 15 nations before enlargement can proceed and an embarrassed Bertie Ahern, the Irish Prime Minister, admitted in Gothenburg: “If we were to refuse to resolve this issue we would create an enormous crisis”.

But Ahern could not offer a date when a new referendum would be held and since it remains uncertain exactly why the Irish rejected the treaty in a very low vote, it is hard for his EU counterparts to decide what help to offer.

Some diplomats expect that since some Irish electors are sensitive about the country’s continued neutrality, and the Nice Treaty endorses the EU’s new military role, there might be an appendix added to the treaty confirming Ireland’s status in that regard.

EU foreign ministers have already ruled out altering the text of the treaty itself.

The leaders have had to strike a balance between assuring the nervous applicant countries that there will be no delay in the enlargement programme and not appearing to ride roughshod over the democratically expressed view of the Irish people.

Germany’s Chancellor Schroeder insisted that there must be no impression of delay and Nicole Fontaine, President of the European Parliament, told leaders that whatever they did to clarify things to meet Irish worries “ those clarifications must not lure the Union into the shifting sands of compromise agreements”.

There was implied criticism of the Irish Government’s campaign in this month’s referendum when Benita Ferrero-Waldner, Austria’s Foreign Minister, declared “Every referendum has become like playing Russian roulette” and said that governments had to prepare for them very carefully.

Ahern said that he and his ministers had told the Irish people that enlargement was both a historic duty and a major opportunity for Europe and that the treaty neither affected Ireland’s basic interests nor threatened its values.

“In my view, the No vote should not be interpreted as a vote against enlargement,” he said.

He thanked other European Union leaders for their support and said that an “extended period of reflection” was required.

The “road map” for EU enlargement agreed at the December summit in Nice envisages the leading candidates being admitted in time to participate in the next round of European Parliament elections in 2004. But the closer those countries are coming to entry the tougher the negotiations are becoming.

EU countries which have been net beneficiaries from the 15-nation group’s present funding arrangements have been trying to drive a hard bargain or to hang on to their benefits. Others have been seeking special protection from problems which they fear enlargement would bring to their economies.

Workers in EU countries are supposed to be free to compete for jobs anywhere in the EU on equal terms. But Germany and Austria, fearful of a flood of low-paid workers in potential new member countries like Poland crossing their borders and driving down wage levels, have demanded a seven year transition period.

Through that time there would be no freedom of entry for workers from newly admitted members.

That was in process of agreement. A similar restriction was placed on workers in Spain and Portugal when they first joined the EU. But then the Spanish threw a Hispanic monkey wrench into the works, threatening to block any such arrangement for their own reasons.

With many poor regions where income levels are below 75 per cent of the EU, the Spanish are currently due to enjoy 68 percent of the EU’s structural and regional aid funds from 2000 to 2006.

They demanded guarantees that they would keep the bulk of such funding even when poorer eastern European countries with a greater claim under the rules joined the EU and said they would block the restriction on workers sought by the Germans if they did not get their way.

Giulio Tremonti, Finance Minister in Silvio Berlusconi’s new government, has declared: “If there are no compensations for the Mezzogiorno (Italy’s poor southern region) then Italy will ask that the enlargement eastwards be slowed down.”

And France has warned that it is not willing to see major changes in the Common Agricultural policy, which takes up more than 45 percent of the EU budget and from which it is one of the biggest gainers.

As the richer existing EU members seek to change the rules to safeguard their benefits, the applicant countries who have been forcing painful changes through their economies in order to qualify for admission to the club are becoming increasingly resentful.

Some are finding a growing proportion of Eurosceptics among their previously enthusiastic populations.

Janez Drnovchek, Slovenia’s Prime Minister, told CNN that the question was becoming whether the EU was ready for the applicant countries rather than the other way around.

• EU Gothenburg Summit

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