Identity issues take EU talks to the brink
Lights have been burning late in the European Union Council of Ministers building the last few nights as diplomats have scrabbled to conclude complex negotiations leading to the largest expansion in the club’s history.
With little more than a week to go before the Copenhagen summit is due to issue invitations to 10 new members some hard bargains are being driven.
More than four years of intense talks have already covered all but the toughest details and the final package now looks likely to go down to the wire in the Danish capital.
Brinkmanship ranges from big financial issues such as budgets and farm subsidies to ostensibly trivial but symbolically important ones ranging from bear hunting and sprat fishing to vodka and wine labelling.
Every candidate has to go through 31 so-called “negotiating chapters” covering every aspect of EU membership from insurance regulations to water quality, but several problems have surfaced in this last gruelling stage.
Lithuania wants more money to close down its Ignalina nuclear power plant and to boost security along its borders with Russia and Belarus.
Estonia is demanding to keep the right to be allowed to hunt wild lynx and bear. The Danes agree but the commission insists this would flout EU environmental rules.
“People at home have no idea what is going on in these negotiations in terms of substance,” says an Estonian journalist. “But this is being made into a big deal in Tallinn and it could scupper a referendum.”
Latvia has managed to resolve an argument about Baltic herring after the commission said the fish were too small for the nets permitted under the common fisheries policy.
Hungary won the right to label a vodka as it wished.
Suckler cows—closely related to farm subsidies—matter a lot to the Czechs, bringing a warning from the chief Czech negotiator, Pavel Telicka, that a greater effort had to be made to resolve this matter before the summiteers gathered in Copenhagen.
The stakes are high and nerves, not surprisingly, are fraying.
The 15 current members and the candidates have been sending out uncompromising messages after their sessions in the fortress-like council building in the heart of Brussels’s EU quarter, warning that insufficient flexibility will lead to a crisis.
On Monday the European commission painted a nightmare scenario of the two-day summit collapsing in acrimony because of disputes over milk quotas and other problems.
“If there is insufficient will, there will be a problematic situation,” Telicka predicted wearily after hours in the so-called “confessional”—one-to-one talks with EU officials.
Everyone involved agrees that if enlargement negotiations prove anything, it is the old adage that all politics are basically local.
Issues discussed behind closed doors in Brussels quickly raise the temperature in Eastern European capitals where governments, all facing EU membership referendums next year, worry constantly about how the deal will be received.
Cyprus, Slovenia and Lithuania are leading the field in completing negotiations. But peer pressure is a key factor and enlargement-watchers say the Czechs are under heavy pressure not to settle before Hungary and Poland have closed their deals, and negotiations are sticky there too.
Jan Truszczynski, the Polish enlargement negotiator, warned: “Money will probably have to be discussed in Copenhagen.”
Poland, with a population of 40-million, is the biggest of the candidates and is proving to be an exceptionally tough haggler. EU diplomats were furious when Warsaw said a blunt “no” to the final package put on the table by Denmark, the holder of the union’s rotating presidency.
Last week’s $1,3-billion offer included a one-off lump sum payment to tide candidates over their first year of accession, as well as more aid for farmers.
But it also infuriated current member states, especially Germany, who thought it far too generous.
“The Poles still have a very long way to go,” another diplomat warned.
“There is a real risk of a serious political miscalculation. They want more money and more quotas and they’re not going to get them.”—(c) Guardian Newspaper 2002