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The European Union
Eastward ho!

Dec 5th 2002 | BRUSSELS
From The Economist print edition

Ten would-be members can expect a welcome from the EU at a summit in Copenhagen next week. But what about Turkey?

THIS is a great moment, insists Marek Grela, Poland's ambassador to the European Union. It marks the final burial of the totalitarian era of the last century and a final end to the division of Europe. The ambassador's insistence on the historic nature of the decisions the European Union will make at its summit in Copenhagen on December 12th and 13th is appropriatebut also slightly plaintive. It has taken almost five years of tortuous negotiations to get to the point where the EU's 15 current members are at last almost ready to strike a deal to admit ten new ones: Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Cyprus and Malta. But the widespread assumption that the deal is all but signed has drained away much of the sense of occasion that would otherwise have attended the negotiations' final stages. Attention is already straying towards a country whose membership of the EU is still far from assured: Turkey.

The fact that a deal on EU enlargement is now so close is a tribute to both the determination of the candidate countries and the grinding efficiency of the EU's negotiating machinery. As little as two years ago, it seemed implausible that as many as ten countries would really sign a deal at the end of 2002, allowing them to join the club in May 2004. To get to this stage, both sides have had to cut their way through a thicket of thorny issues, from the free movement of labour and capital to the enforcement of environmental rules and the regulation of state aid to industry.

The small print

In theory, the candidates are meant to implement all 80,000-plus pages of EU law immediately; and the EU is meant to grant the candidates all the rights of membership just as quickly. In practice, political and economic constraints on both sides mean that in a host of areas transitional deals have had to be struck. The EU's current members have insisted on an interim of seven years before there is fully free movement of labour, and ten years before the new members are eligible for the full range of farm subsidies. For their part, the candidates have been granted extra time to phase in the EU's burdensome environmental legislation. Each country has sought a range of concessions tailored to local sensitivities, from the Estonians' wish to continue shooting bears to Malta's insistence on banning the purchase of second homes by foreigners.

A week before the summit, there were still issues to be settled. The hardest concerned money and agriculture, subjects closely related in the EU, which still spends over 40% of its budget subsidising farmers. All the candidate countries were still insisting that the EU's offer on phasing in subsidies to farmers was not generous enough. An attempt by the Danes, who are chairing the final stage of negotiations, to offer a more generous settlement had been knocked back by the Germans, the Union's traditional paymasters, who are under growing financial pressure at home.

Among the candidates, Poland is fighting hard to get an increase in its quota for milk production, arguing that its farmers will be bankrupted if the quota is set too low. And there are still small but delicate local concerns. The Latvians, for instance, got a last-minute dispensation to catch under-size herring, a local speciality; the Czechs are still fighting hard over the geographical designation of Budweiser beer.

Everybody agrees that it would be unseemly if the great reunification of Europe were to be overshadowed by ungracious last-minute haggling over money, let alone herring and beer. But it is now clear that some such delicacies, large and small, will indeed end up on the plates of the prime ministers and presidents assembled in Copenhagen next week. One Central European diplomat comments: We'll need a little bit of dramajust to make sure that people are paying attention.

Last-minute dramas can get out of hand. But it is hard to believe that the summit will end without a victory photograph of the new and enlarged EU family. On the edges of the picture will be Romania and Bulgaria, two would-be members which have yet to complete negotiations but which are hoping to join the club in 2007. However, one big question will be overshadowing the summit: Turkey.

The Turks were first offered the prospect of eventual membership of the European club in the early 1960s, when the Central Europeans were still locked behind the iron curtain. The EU has procrastinated and hummed and hawed. Every now and then eminent European politicians have decried the very idea of Turkish membership, the latest being Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, a former French president now chairing a convention on the EU's future. But the Turks have kept pressing for a date to start negotiations and their pleas are increasingly difficult to ignore.

The sight of ten more countries about to join the EU naturally puts Turkish claims higher up the agenda. And the United States, which, for its own strategic reasons, badly wants Turkey admitted to the EU, is fiercely pressing the Europeans to let it in. The Turks themselves have pushed through a clutch of legal and political reforms, for example abolishing the death penalty and easing restrictions on the Kurdish minority, which have gone a long way towards meeting the EU's Copenhagen criteria of minimal democratic norms that all countries must meet before they can begin negotiations to join.

So what will the summit offer the Turks? Three possibilities are being discussed: a date, a date for a date and a rendezvous. The Turks want a straightforward date: a definite moment for starting negotiations. But they know that they are unlikely to get that, so their fall-back is a date for a date: the promise that if certain specified reforms are in place by a given momentsay, the end of 2004negotiations will then begin. The Europeans are still toying with the idea of offering a vaguer commitment: a rendezvous at which both sides would meet again to assess progress at a later date. The Turks dismiss this last option as meaningless.

Quite what offer Turkey will get may not emerge before the summit. If the Turks accept the UN's peace plan for the divided island of Cyprus by the time of the summit, their case may be irresistible. But even without a breakthrough over Cyprus, things seem to be moving Turkey's way. Even Mr Giscard d'Estaing's recent intervention may have worked to its advantage, by forcing European leaders to restate support for eventual Turkish membership.

Certainly the Turks themselves are sounding smoothly confident. Giscard's statements are understandable, says a top Turk. He's of a certain generation still nostalgic for a small, homogeneous EU. But that Europe has gone for ever.

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Web de Juan Carlos Ocaña  
Profesor de Geografía e Historia
I.E.S. Parque de Lisboa 
Alcorcón (Madrid) 
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