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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

'Club EU' Hopefuls Face Long Wait

BRUSSELS -- Like eager students looking for careers, countries from central and eastern Europe hoping to win admission into the European Union have filled in the application forms on time.

Now, they face a long and agonizing wait while Brussels bureaucrats weigh the applicants' suitability to join a club that officially wants them in -- but privately is terrified of the effects the newcomers might have on the existing club.

"Recently, hard facts have dawned on both sides: Enlargement is not for tomorrow. It is going to be a long, hard process, but that is not to say we are no longer committed to it," said one senior EU official.

Ten countries from former communist Eastern Europe -- Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Romania, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Slovenia -- are all waiting outside the door of most successful political and trade group ever seen in Europe.

In the euphoria that greeted the fall of communism on the continent seven years ago, the EU's existing member states -- most also are members of the NATO military alliance that won the Cold War -- held out the prospect of quick membership.

All the new democracies had to do, they suggested, was embrace pluralism, adopt market reforms and impose political control over their once-dominant military.

The reward would be a single market with a free flow of goods, people, capital and services stretching from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea -- a global show-case for successful free-market democracy.

But as happens so often in EU affairs, diplomats now say harsh realities are acting as a brake on lofty idealism.

Pessimists fear the whole project could be delayed for years, and even the optimists no longer believe in a turn-of-the-century target date.

At the root of the problem is money, most often the cause of EU woes.

The prospective new members are poorer than even the EU's poorest countries -- Greece, Ireland and Portugal -- and much poorer than those three were when they joined.

Worse still, the applicant states are still overwhelmingly agrarian economies, a circumstance that could torpedo attempts to keep the EU's $52-billion farm budget under control.

Unless the EU's system of payments to poor regions and subsidies to farmers is reformed, enlargement could force an unacceptably large increase on the budget; some estimates have suggested it could be as high as 60 percent.

With internal EU relations already strained by moves to create a single currency by 1999, diplomats and analysts say a new bout of reform negotiations could take months to bear fruit.

EU member states have already begun an intergovernmental conference to plot the shape of a union that could someday include 30 states. Cyprus and Malta are also waiting in the wings, and even Turkey has not yet lost all hope of membership.

The conference "could last months, and membership negotiations years, even before the laborious ratification process gets under way," said one EU diplomat who follows the enlargement issue.

Officials say even the most ardent supporters now accept that the most likely batch of new members -- Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic -- are unlikely to gain admission before 2002.

When Brussels officials return from their summer break, the issue is likely to dominate EU politics.

The first job will be to analyze boxes of replies to questions submitted to all 10 governments earlier this year by the European Commission to try to gauge each country's ability to meet the rights and obligations of membership.

When that process is complete, the commission will submit "opinions" to the current 15 EU states as to which applicants are most likely to be able to make the grade and recommendations on whether to open negotiations.