EU to Begin Memebrship Talks with Six Countries

BRUSSELS (Reuter)–The European Commission agreed in principle on Thursday to recommend the European Union open membership talks with Poland–the Czech Republic–Hungary–Slovenia–Estonia and Cyprus.

Senior Commission officials said the decision had been taken after a day-long meeting aimed at settling differences between those who wanted to limit the EU’s first eastern enlargement to four countries and those who wanted six.

"The decision is for five plus one," one senior Commission official told Reuters–referring to the jargon used to mean the five front-running east European candidates and Cyprus.

At a historic summit in Spain this week–NATO invited Poland–the Czech Republic and Hungary to start entry negotiations leading to planned admission to the Western alliance in 1999.

The European Commission decision is expected to be finalised in Strasbourg next Tuesday–a day before the EU executive unveils individual advice to EU governmen’s on which of 10 eastern European applicants are suitable on economic and political grounds for membership of the rich western bloc.

The 20 Commissioners went to the talks divided into two camps over whether the 15-nation bloc’s first foray behind the former Iron Curtain should embrace just the three eastern frontrunners or the Baltic state of Estonia and the former Yugoslav state of Slovenia as well.

Faced with bitter disappointment on the part of five other applicants – Latvia–Lithuania–Slovakia–Romania and Bulgaria – judged not yet ready–but still desperate to join–Commissioners also fine-tuned a waiting room system whereby those left out of the first enlargement wave would be given a timetable for meeting the rigours of EU membership.

A Commission official said that under the plan each of the six countries negotiating and the five left out would have contractual "accession partnerships" with the EU–laying down what was expected of them.

Powerful forces in the Commission surrounding Commission President Jacques Santer went to the meeting demanding a smaller expansion to avoid an EU institutional overhaul which will be needed if the 15-nation bloc expands beyond 20 members.

The backers of a six-country accession round said that if the EU was to honour its commitment to judge the applications by the eastern countries on objective criteria– Estonia and Slovenia should be admitted on the same basis as Poland

At the heart of the problem was the failure of EU leaders to agree at their June 16-17 Amsterdam summit on the institutional reforms necessary to loosen up the bloc’s decision-making procedures for the day it has up to a dozen new members.

Under the fudge agreed at Amsterdam the EU must hold a new treaty-revising conference if it expands to more than 20 members.

As Cyprus has been in line for some time and is heavily backed by Greece–the number of EU members would expand to 21 if it was admitted along with five easterners.

There has been no reaction from the Turkish government–whose desire to joing the European Union has widely been publicized.

Final decisions will be made in the near future.

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