Hans van den Broek, European Commissioner in charge of enlargement negotiations, argues that EU membership for the Baltic states is a question of when, not if

How realistic are the Baltic states' hopes of eventual EU membership?

These hopes are perfectly realistic. All three Baltic states submitted their requests for full membership of the EU in 1995 and since then have played a full part in the EU's pre-accession strategy. That strategy paves the way to accession by the candidate countries of central and eastern Europe, including the Baltic states. Within that strategy, a contractual relationship with all the candidate countries has been established through these countries' association agreements with the EU. Furthermore, specific economic and technical assistance is being provided through the Phare programme, while the Union has also launched a structured dialogue with the candidate countries to discuss issues of mutual interest in a wide-ranging number of areas.

The question therefore is not whether the Baltic states will join the Union, but when and under which circumstances.

What are the key criteria that these states must meet before membership becomes a real possibility?

The EU, at the Summit of heads of state and government in Copenhagen in July 1993, set out clearly the conditions for membership of the Union: 'Accession (by the associated countries of central and eastern Europe) will take place as soon as an associated country is able to assume the obligations of membership by satisfying the economic and political conditions required.' The heads of state and government also stipulated that 'membership requires that the candidate country has achieved stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities.' Furthermore, it was said that eligible countries should have a 'functioning market economy as well as the capacity to cope with competitive pressure and market forces within the Union'.

In due time, after the conclusion of the Intergovernmental Conference (IGC) which aims to adapt the existing structures and procedures of the EU with a view to improving its efficiency, transparency and democratic accountability, the European Commission will submit detailed opinions setting out its assessment of the state of play of the political and economic reform process in each of the candidate countries, including the Baltic states. It is on that basis that decisions will be taken as to how and with which candidate country negotiations for membership will be started. The Union applies an identical approach towards each of the candidate countries in central and eastern Europe.

Do you see possible EU membership for the Baltic states as primarily a political or an economic issue?

Future EU membership of the Baltic states has far-reaching consequences in political and economic terms. It is obvious that the countries concerned, after having gone through a long period of lack of freedom and material suffering, now aim at ensuring conditions for lasting peace, in which democracy can be consolidated and the prosperity of the people increased. The successful outcome of political and economic reform, be it in Tallinn, Prague or Sofia, will not only be beneficial for the people there, but for those in the EU as well. For the first time in history, there is a real chance to unify people all over Europe. That is a challenge that we must rise to.

Military links under NATO have grown since the end of the Soviet Union, prompting opposition from Russia. Is there a risk, particularly given the growth of nationalism in Russia, that increased links between the EU and Baltic states may prompt similar opposition from Moscow?

The Alliance has established new forms of contractual relationships with its neighbours. Partnership for Peace agreements have been established with a whole range of countries in Europe as well as in Asia. Through these agreements, the potential has been created for wide-ranging forms of co-operation which, for example, have been put into practice in relation to the IFOR presence in Bosnia.

Additional steps are envisaged including the accession of some of those European countries to the Alliance. The Baltic countries could be part of that process as well. However, such development has to be situated in a broader context, ie a rapprochement of the Baltic states to the Alliance cannot be fully disconnected from its implications for other states in the region, not least Russia.

As far as the EU is concerned, a partnership agreement has been established with Russia, aiming at providing the basis for far-reaching co-operation in the economic and political fields. There can be no question that the Union, or NATO, would ignore the concerns of Russia with regard to its perception as to how security and peace in Europe can be guaranteed.

Surely, no diktat can be accepted when the future shape of the EU or the Alliance is at stake, but it is also true that parties are too interdependent to allow them to proceed in opposite directions.

The EU is strengthening links with other nations, particularly in the Mediterranean. Given that, for example, Cyprus and Malta look set for membership, is there a risk that the Union may be expanding too far, too fast?

The perspective of a wider Union, maybe comprising in a decade from now more than 20 nations, can be taken for granted. The Union is committed to enlarging itself by including the new democracies of eastern and central Europe, including the Baltic states, but also towards Malta and Cyprus. However, at the same time the EU must adapt its internal rules and structures to ensure efficient absorption capacity.

The deepening and widening of the EU should be considered as two sides of the same coin. It is for that reason that it has been decided that no negotiation for new membership of the Union can take place until the IGC, which has just started, has ended. The European Council meeting in Florence confirmed this approach, while stating, however, that the pre-accession strategy should be strengthened to allow a timely start to the initial phase of the negotiation process with the countries of central and eastern Europe.

Economic and Monetary Union is at present causing argument within the EU member states. Given its own internal difficulties, is the EU ready for expansion on the scale that you envisage?

There is no doubt that important steps need to be taken to confirm the objectives which have been clearly spelled out, including the establishment of the monetary union within the timetable planned. These are challenging tasks, but they cannot represent an alibi for not accepting our responsibilities towards those around us. As I said already, a number of important amendments have to be introduced regarding the existing shape of the Union, but I am confident that we will achieve those goals which will permit the Union to widen in accordance with the needs and desires of those countries which aspire to become part of the European family.

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