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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Disagreements Dog EU Expansion Plan

BRUSSELS, Belgium -- A plan to enlarge the European Union to include five former Iron Curtain countries has hit a snag, with powerful elements within the European Commission resisting plans to include Estonia and Slovenia.


A plan drawn up by the EU's External Relations Commissioner Hans van den Broek suggests Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovenia and Estonia are ready for membership talks.


But this has gone back to the drawing board because some officials are reluctant to take in more than three new members, EU officials said Wednesday.


Among the key players pressuring for a less ambitious expansion exercise are the central civil servants based around commission President Jacques Santer, who want to avoid the institutional reforms that a large expansion would entail.


"There are still a lot of people in the commission who want to close the door to the Baltic States and also Slovenia," one official involved in the discussion said.


A new draft prepared for a special meeting of the 20-strong commission on Thursday singles out Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary for a first wave of talks on expanding membership.


The document is expected to add a middle-ranking group for a second wave of negotiations which would include Estonia, its Baltic neighbors Lithuania and Latvia, and Slovenia, the official said.


Slovakia, where the lack of political reforms is deemed to rule out talks for the time being, and Bulgaria and Romania, which are struggling economically, would be held over until a later date.


The plan to take in five new countries has a long list of supporters on the commission, including British commissioners Sir Leon Brittan and Neil Kinnock, German Commissioner Martin Bangemann, Sweden's Commissioner Anita Gradin, Denmark's Ritt Bjerregaard and commissioners from southern states like Greece's Christos Papoutis.


The backers say that if the EU is to honor 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.


But commissioners from smaller countries, led by Santer, fear that by taking in five countries the bloc will commit itself to lengthy and difficult institutional reforms, which could delay the enlargement.


At the heart of the problem is the failure of EU leaders to agree at their June 16 to 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 already 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 the five Eastern European countries.


In public Santer has been ambivalent on the issue, telling the European Parliament that the Amsterdam failure augured ill for enlargement.


A day later Santer reassured eastern European leaders that EU expansion would go as planned.