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Sunday Times of London-October 6, 2002, Sunday
2002-10-07 14:13:57

HEADLINE: EU's new friends in the east get cold feet
BYLINE: Matthew Campbell
IN THE end, it might prove a bit of a damp squib. A much-vaunted 10-country expansion of the European Union to be rubber-stamped in Brussels this week is beset by so much intrigue, farce and uncertainty that some of the applicant nations might be forgiven for walking away.

In Paris and Berlin it has long been felt that poor cousins from the former Soviet bloc and the Mediterranean were lucky to be offered the chance of joining the world's biggest trading club and that the only hindrance to doing so by 2004 a deadline to be recommended by the European commission on Wednesday and approved by Brussels this week -was the ferocious mechanical complexity of such a historic merger. Far from it. If not quite having second thoughts, the Poles, at least, appear distinctly lukewarm about the project: the country's prime minister recently warned that foreigners would come to pick over his country's economy "like crows" when it joins.

Many Czechs also appear reluctant to surrender sovereignty that has been only recently acquired after decades under the Soviet yoke; all the more so since their economy, growing at 2-3% a year, appears to be performing so much better than those who were their erstwhile comrades-in-arms in the former communist East Germany.

Opinion polls in the Czech Republic show the "yes" camp's majority is shrinking fast. Pavel Telicka, Prague's chief negotiator with the EU, said recently that he might recommend the government put its application on hold if conditions were "not acceptable".

Things might have been more clear-cut for these eastern applicants if they had been wooed with the same bonanza of EU benefits showered on some of the western members.

Yet protracted negotiations with Brussels have bred disillusion over the EU's reluctance to share the Pounds 25billion -half of its annual budget -it spends each year on farm subsidies.

In what looks to many like a blatant attempt to move the goalposts, some core EU members, including Britain, are calling for the subsidy system to be reformed before enlargement takes place so that an abundance of eastern farmers clamouring for their share of euro-largesse does not send the budget spiralling out of control.

France and Spain, the two biggest beneficiaries of the current system, nevertheless remain bitterly opposed to any reforms that will reduce their share.

Hungary, at least, seemed to be getting down to the nuts and bolts, haggling with Brussels over the number of seats to which it would be entitled in the European parliament: Budapest wants two more than the 20 being offered by Brussels under the Nice treaty negotiated in five chaotic days in December 2000.

For little Cyprus, meanwhile, there is more at stake. Turkey -enraged at seeing its long-running campaign to join the EU put on the back burner because of political uncertainty and concerns about human rights -has threatened to annex the Turkish north of Cyprus if it joins the EU before a settlement on the divided island is reached. Greece, in turn, has said it will veto the entire enlargement process if Cyprus is kept out.

There are plenty of misgivings in Brussels, too. Many EU diplomats fear that the mostly impoverished former communist candidates will still be unable to meet the EU's tough standards on a wide range of issues from food hygiene to state aid even after they join the union.

The surreal air surrounding such deliberations has been intensified by the Irish. Because of a peculiar quirk of the system, they may have the power to delay expansion of the EU indefinitely when they hold their second referendum on the Nice treaty on October 19.

Romano Prodi, the commission president, sought to play down the significance of the first Irish "no" in June 2001, by saying that the EU could admit new members even without Irish approval. But his lieutenants have since contradicted him.

The Danish prime minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency, warned last week that there was "no plan B". If the Irish turned their backs on EU expansion again, he said, then plans to hold final entry negotiations in December with Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Slovenia, Malta and Cyprus would be thrown into disarray.

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