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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Easten Europe on Mark for EU Race

AMSTERDAM, Netherlands -- The race is on for a dozen countries to join the European Union.

After hearing from EU leaders Friday that an internal squabble over voting in a bigger EU won't derail their membership chances, the candidates started elbowing for the best position to get into the EU.

"The horse race will start immediately,'' said Latvia's Prime Minister Andris Skele after a meeting of the EU presidency with 10 East European nations, Turkey and Cyprus.

Expanding the 15-member EU to as many as 27 over the next decade would unite most of the European continent, raising the prospect of an economic and political juggernaut in world affairs.

"Enlargement is one of the greatest challenges for the next century,'' said European Commission President Jacques Santer. But the EU's road ahead is strewn with nationalist reflexes, institutional roadblocks and economic challenges.

Last week the EU leaders, at a summit here, failed to settle a spat over reallocating votes for big and small members ahead of enlargement. But Friday, Dutch Foreign Minister Hans van Mierlo, whose country holds the EU presidency, said that issue will be dwarfed by disputes over money during next year's enlargement negotiations.

The first wave of entrants is unlikely to join the EU until 2002. The candidates for membership are Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovenia, Slovakia, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Romania, Bulgaria, Cyprus and Turkey. Three of these, or possibly five, are expected to be allowed entry in a first wave.

Candidate nations will get a first clue of their membership chances July 16 when the EU head office will issue report cards.