The new democracies of Central and Eastern Europe may be more ready for the European Union than the EU is for them.
That is the feeling after the EU summit held here June 16 and 17. EU officials have acknowledged their own work in preparation for enlargement as "mediocre." Would-be new members, while trying to put a good face on things, warn of "disillusionment" among their own peoples if the expansion is too slow in coming.
Are historic opportunities to anchor Central and Eastern Europe in the West being lost while Eurocrats dither?
The institutional reforms necessary for EU expansion, to have been concluded during the summit, were postponed for the time being.
European Commission President Jacques Santer warned in Brussels last week: "I do not want to see a situation whereby on the eve of enlargement we are forced to say to our future members, 'You have done everything to prepare yourselves for entering the EU. Unfortunately the EU hasn't been able to get ready to receive you.' "
But despite misgivings, the 12 aspiring new members (10 Central and Eastern European countries, plus Turkey and Cyprus) pronounce themselves - on the record, at least - generally satisfied. And at a meeting on Friday in Amsterdam, Dutch Prime Minister Kim Wok, whose country holds the EU presidency, assured his counterparts from the 12 aspirants that they remain on track for EU membership in the upcoming decade.
In a Monitor interview, Ivan Udvardi, director of the Hungarian Foreign Ministry's Department of European Political Cooperation and Coordination, called the text for the Treaty of Amsterdam, which the summit produced, "quite acceptable" and expressed confidence in the timetable for expansion. "We don't see any problems."
What caught people's attention in the Czech Republic, says Jiri Pehe, a political analyst in Prague, was a reference in the treaty to a possible expansion of the EU by "at least two and as many as six new members." Conventional wisdom has had it that the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland are likely to make up the "first wave."
Says Mr. Pehe, "If there are only two new members, we could find ourselves off the list."
Enlargement by two would be likely to involve Hungary and Slovenia, he suggests. "There's a strong case for Slovenia" as an EU member, Pehe says. "It's by far the most advanced of the prospective new members. It's small, it's digestible."
The Czech Republic, once the golden boy of EU aspirants, has seen its reputation - and economic performance - considerably dimmed recently.
One of the problems in Eastern Europe is soaring trade deficits, in part the result of association agreements that allow only limited Eastern European exports into the EU. On the other hand, the agreements allow the EU to export freely to the east.
Nonetheless, the association agreements have been key to preparing for EU membership. "The trade-balance issue is hard for all of us," says Danuta Hbner, secretary of state for European integration in Warsaw. "But ... we should see the agreements as instruments for change - for the restructuring of our institutions and industries."
Ms. Hbner has misgivings about the recent summit as a whole, such its overambitious agenda, but is prepared to declare victory on the points that matter most. She sees "confirmation of the enlargement process" as an important result.
Markus Mildenberger, an expert on Poland at the German Society for Foreign Affairs in Bonn, takes a somewhat darker view. EU membership is critical to the economic development of these countries, he says. "And the longer one waits to enlarge the EU, the more problematic it becomes to do so. Across Europe, we see a movement against stronger integration - in Britain, in France. There was an opportunity lost in Amsterdam."