BRUSSELS (Reuters)–The European Commission on Wednesday recommended letting six more countries join full European Union membership talks–doubling the number of states involved–and proposed making Turkey an official candidate.
The EU executive’s proposals–in an annual review of the progress of the 13 countries on meeting membership criteria–put the 15-nation bloc on course for an accelerated expansion which could nearly double its membership.
The Commission recommended that the five central and eastern European states of Slovakia–Latvia–Lithuania–Bulgaria and Romania should start full membership talks–as should the Mediterranean island of Malta.
These six second-tier candidates had been in a "waiting room" preparing their bids–although Poland–Hungary–the Czech Republic–Slovenia–Estonia and Cyprus have been holding formal negotiations since March 1998.
"The European Commission proposed today that accession negotiations should be opened with all remaining candidate countries," the Commission said in a statement.
The Commission said Turkey should be considered as a candidate country–although it said there was "no question" of opening negotiations at this stage.
The Commission declined to recommend a target date for EU enlargement and said each country would–once admitted to talks–proceed at its own pace.
"Before the EU can consider setting target dates–it should first have a fuller assessment of each candidate’s situation both in terms of progress in the negotiations and in preparations for membership. Only then can the Union ensure that any target dates will be realistic," it said.
The proposals will be considered at an EU summit in Helsinki in December. No new member is expected to join the EU until 2004 at the earliest.
Turkey’s long-standing bid to join the EU has previously been given the cold shoulder because of concerns over its human rights record and territorial disputes with neighbor Greece.
Greece said on Wednesday that its vote to lift objections to Turkey being made an EU candidate could not be taken for granted and that relations with Ankara still hinged on progress to end the division of Cyprus.
"Our vote is not a given," Greek Foreign Minister George Papandreou said after a meeting with his Cypriot counterpart. "Regardless of how much we move forward in bilateral issues–there cannot be substantial progress if there is no solution in Cyprus."
But the EU has been encouraged by an improvement in Athens’s relations with Ankara since the rivals cooperated over recent earthquakes in their countries. It wants to spur reforms in Turkey and encourage it to improve its human rights record.
The Commission’s proposals reflect a desire by its new president–Romani Prodi–to accelerate enlargement and could prompt the EU to abolish the distinction between first- and second-tier candidates at December’s summit.
The EU–born as a six-nation group–last expanded in 1995 when Austria–Finland and Sweden joined.
It now wants to embrace former Communist-ruled countries from eastern and central Europe and has been spurred to speed up expansion by the crisis in Yugoslavia’s Kosovo province.
The Commission said in its annual reports a year ago that only Latvia–Lithuania and Slovakia had reasonable prospects of winning promotion this year.
But the executive has bowed to deman’s from some EU member states to include stragglers Bulgaria and Romania as well.
EU foreign ministers–meeting in Finland last month–said they wanted to include the two Balkan countries to avoid isolating and discouraging them after their assistance during the Kosovo crisis.