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Europe

EU Chiefs To Set Terms for Expansion

Leaders at this week's European Union summit in Brussels are scheduled to set the final conditions for the entry of 10 new members in 2004, but discord over agricultural and other subsidies could make for a bumpy ride.

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Will the number of flags at the European Parliament grow in 2004?

The Irish registered their overwhelming support at the polls last Sunday for the expansion of the European Union. But EU leaders convening in Brussels this week must iron out some major policy wrinkles that have pitted Germany against France and the EU's smaller members versus the larger ones before the 10 proposed new members can enter the Union in 2004.

Earlier this week, the EU's foreign ministers sought in Luxembourg to find common ground on the contested issue of agricultural subsidies. A solution to the conflict is a key condition for the planned eastward expansion. But other prickly issues -- including structural funds and compensation -- are proving to be sticking points that could protract negotiations.

European Commission President Romano Prodi would like to avoid any delays, and he's been lobbying his case at Europe's most important addresses this week.

At an appearance before the European Parliament on Wednesday, the Italian politician said expansion was necessary in order to create a stronger Europe. He noted that, after expansion, the number of people living inside the European Union would increase by 75 million to a total of 450 million -- 50 million more than the North American Free Trade Area, which includes the United States, Canada and Mexico.

Then Prodi warned his fellow statesmen against "jeopardizing the success of enlargement by wrangling over details."

But those details are extensive -- so much so that Danish diplomats have booked their hotel rooms in Brussels through Sunday, two days longer than the summit is expected to run. "It could be a long meeting," one official told Agence France Presse.

Feuding over farmers

At the center of negotiations are the EU's direct agricultural subsidies for farmers, which have recently been a major flash point in relations between Germany and France.

Though agricultural subsidies represent only 9.5 billion euro of the overall 42 billion euro proposed annual budget between 2004-2006 to fund the entry of the 10 new members, Germany has said the aid should be linked to an overall reduction in the EU's agricultural budget. Currently, the common agricultural policy (CAP) consumes close to 50 percent of the EU's 95 billion euro annual budget.

Under the proposed EU plan, the accession states are slated to be phased into CAP. At first, they would receive only 25 percent of the subsidies granted to the existing members. But those subsidies would reach 100 percent of Western levels by 2013, and Berlin fears that once the countries are phased in the costs of CAP will skyrocket. But France, which receives more CAP subsidies than any other country, is seeking to avoid any changes before 2006.

The European Union's Commissioner for Expansion, Günter Verheugen, has called on Germany and France to resolve their differences on the issue. But he has also expressed optimism this week about the coming negotiations.

"There's no single member state remaning in this process that is threatening to veto expansion if its demands and wishes aren't met," Verheugen said. Nonetheless, he said countries needed to stay on a tight course in order to conclude negotiations before December.

Both Christian Democrats and socialists in the European Parliament praised the European Commission for its preparations for the negotiations. They also warned EU member states not to disappoint the candidate countries.

Hans-Gerd Pöttering, the head of Germany's Christian Democratic faction in parliament, said the current agricultural subsidies debate is out of place in the negotiations.

"It's a big political misstake for these new conditions to emerge now," he said. "People should have been talking about this a lot earlier. It would be tragic if the candidate nations were to become victims because the European Union was unable to find agreement."

Beyond the corn row

There are still other minor areas of contention, however. Several smaller EU countries -- including Spain, Portugal and Ireland -- that still receive structural aid are concerned that the 25.5 billion euro a year planned for the new member states to help build out their infrastructures to EU standards, could lead to a decrease in the amount of funding they receive for similar projects.

Another point of contention is likely to be compensation. At this week's meeting in Luxembourg, EU foreign ministers agreed that none of the new members should be required to pay more to Brussels than they get back.

A handful of countries, including Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Malta and Slovenia, are worried they may lose money by joining the EU rather than reaping its rewards. To counter these fears, the European Commission has proposed a 1.3 billion euro compensation fund, but full support for the plan is far from certain.

On Wednesday, members of the European Commission, the European Parliament and European head's of state and government appealed to their colleagues not lose sight of the historic dimensions of expansion.