NATO Wannabes Also Line Up To Join Europe's Economic Club

Move the political calendar up a week: You are the leader of a Central or Eastern European nation, and you've just found out that your country's bid for NATO membership was rejected at the July 8-9 Madrid Summit.What if the European Union a week later also snubs your application to open negotiations to join Europe's economic partnership?

Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Drnovsek has given the question a lot of thought. If Slovenia were left out of the first round of both NATO and European Union enlargement, "the government would not survive. We have put a lot of energy into this.... We would take our responsibility and resign," he said June 30.

NATO and EU enlargement are independent processes, but they do not seem so to those on the receiving end of the decisions. Estonia and Bulgaria have asked that the EU agree next week to open negotiations with all candidates in order to keep up public support for reforms at home.

Some 12 new members aim to join the 15-member European Union, including 10 Central and East European countries, along with Cyprus and Turkey. But unlike NATO, the EU has not been able to reach a consensus on how to reform its structures to take in new members.

Here are some of the issues:

* How do you adapt institutions designed for six original members to an organization of some 25? Members have haggled for 15 months over changing the EU's decisionmaking processes.

* Who pays for the newcomers? Europe's newest applicants are significantly poorer than other EU members, and could claim the lion's share of the EU's development funds, over the objections of Greece, Ireland, Portugal, and Spain, the poorest among the current EU membership.

* Who are the front-runners? The same as for NATO: Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, despite recent economic setbacks in Prague. Slovenia and Estonia are also on track for early membership.

* What is the timetable for enlargement? On July 16, the European Commission gives its opinion on which countries are ready to open membership negotiations. Talks begin in January, and new members are expected to be admitted no sooner than 2000 and perhaps as late as 2005.

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