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Europe

Gearing up for EU Enlargement

The momentum for expanding the European Union has gathered pace. An upbeat Commission report was well received by the East European hopefuls. Even so, a rocky road lies ahead as the EU gears up for enlargement.

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Ten new members?

In an upbeat assessment, the European Union says it is on track to conclude entry talks with up to 10 new members from eastern Europe and the Mediterranean next year.

Presenting the report to the European Parliament in Strasbourg, EU Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen hailed the candidates' progress and said he believed a number of them would join by 2004.

"It is not a utopian dream - it is a realistic and feasible challenge," said Verheugen.

For the first time, all 10 leading candidates - Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, Slovenia, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Cyprus and Malta - were deemed to have a "functioning market economy."

It said Bulgaria was close to having such an economy and Romania was making progress. But the Commission said Turkey still did not meet the political criteria on human rights to begin negotiations.

Candidates have been divided into two groups - the first and second waves - depending on when they began negotiations.

But the report doesn’t say which applicants were best placed to join in the first wave. An indication that the most difficult negotiations on agriculture and regional aid lie ahead in 2002 - a year also paved with elections in western Europe.

Hurdles and pitfalls ahead

Popular support for enlargement is dwindling in several key EU countries. Sticky issues remain, like agricultural subsidies and regional aid, which are perceived to be too costly by many ordinary citizens.

Germany, the biggest net contributor to the EU budget, has signalled it wants to keep a firm lid on spending and even to return some agricultural funding to national governments – a call vigorously opposed by France. Both countries hold elections in 2002.

Spain, the biggest beneficiary of the EU’s structural fund, is worried about losing regional aid when more countries join the club. It holds the EU Presidency as of January 2002

Agriculture and structural funds, which are channelled to the EU's poorest regions, account together for 80 percent of the EU's 90 billion euro annual budget.

The Commission said it hoped to draft a common negotiating position on spending by early 2002.

The question is, whether the EU’s 15 national governments can agree on many of these issues as quickly as the Commission wants them to.