EU talks underway, as Czechs inch closer to membership

The process of EU enlargement seems to be gaining momentum, as top EU representatives have assured candidate countries that the question no longer is whether enlargement will take place, but when. But there still remain some stumbling blocks on the road to EU accession. Vladimir Tax reports.

Romano Prodi
The President of the European Commission, Romano Prodi, and EU enlargement commissioner, Guenter Verheugen, have been holding talks with Czech government representatives this week on the details of EU expansion. Mr Prodi made it clear at press conference on Thursday that the Czechs have made significant progress in adopting EU legislation, but there are still some tasks ahead, such as reforms in public administration and the judicial system.

Mr Prodi believes enlargement will take place soon, as the EU wants new members to participate in European Parliament elections in 2004. One of the main aims of the visit to Prague by Mr Prodi and Mr Verheugen is to overcome major differences over transition periods. While some EU countries insist that the free movement of labour should be limited at first, candidate countries fear that their wealthier fellow EU citizens will buy up their land and property. Although these fears may be groundless, Romano Prodi says they must be taken into account.

"If there is a public opinion in the Czech Republic, people are frightened by selling land to foreign parties, so there is a public opinion in Germany and Austria concerning free movement of labour. I am convinced that both are unjustified."

Expert studies show there is little danger of a massive influx of labour from new member states to neighbouring EU countries. But the EU wants to reflect public opinion and is expected to propose a seven-year transition period restricting the free movement of labour, with a review of the process after two years.

EU enlargement commissioner Guenter Verheugen believes that these measures are not discriminatory and do not imply first and second class EU membership. While the EU has more than 500 demands for transition periods from candidate countries, Mr Verheugen says the free movement of labour is the only such request from EU member states.

"Sometimes, these results of opinion polls are based on a lack of information. Transitional arrangements are absolutely a normal element not only in accession negotiations and accession process. It was always used also in the process of integration of the member states."

The Czech government acknowledges that some transition periods may be necessary, but Czech Foreign Minister Jan Kavan hopes they will only be temporary.

"I am prepared to accept that some kind of transition period will be necessary both in the chapter free movement of labour as well as free movement of capital. So, the argument is not whether there will be a transition period but what kind of transition period. I, of course, hope that it will be a very short one, short enough to convince European Union countries that their fears have been unjustified."