The European Union's executive body has told 10 mainly central and eastern European countries that they can join the group in the year 2004. The European Commission says the accession of the mostly poor, mostly former communist countries is a major step in the reunification of Europe.
The European Commission says that, after years of negotiations and painful reforms, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, as well as the two Mediterranean islands of Cyprus and Malta, are ready to join the EU's single market.
The commission says Bulgaria and Romania can join the EU as early as 2007 if they keep up the pace of reform. But the commission gave the cold shoulder to Turkey, the biggest and most problematic candidate for membership, refusing to even set a date for it to begin accession talks. The commission says Turkey has made progress, but still needs to improve its human rights record.
The biggest EU expansion will mark the end of Europe's Cold War division, uniting virtually all of the continent into a single economic unit.
Britain's minister for European affairs, Peter Hain, says the move, if approved by the 15 current EU members at a December summit in Denmark, will finally bring Europe together under the EU fold.
"This is the biggest event in Europe's history since the foundation of the European Community and the Union," declared Mr. Hain, "because we are bringing in 10 countries, a lot of them that used to be suppressed by the old Soviet empire and now coming together as European nations."
Mr. Hain and other backers of enlargement say it will help to cement democracy, the rule of law, and respect for human rights in the former communist East and also allow the 75 million people in the 10 countries approved for membership to share in EU stability and prosperity.
But the European Commission's enlargement report points out that most of the 10 countries must still do more to reduce corruption before they can join the club. And it says all of them have to create more efficient legal and administrative systems before the 2004 deadline.
"There are many obstacles that still have to be overcome, but this is one very important step today," said EU Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen.
The expansion plans face other roadblocks, most notably a referendum this month in Ireland on the Nice Treaty, which prepares EU institutions for enlargement. Irish voters already rejected the treaty once before, and if they do so again, they could throw the whole enlargement process into disarray.
European Commission President Roman Prodi admits he is worried about the Irish referendum.
"If the Irish referendum says 'no,' it will be a problem...difficult to solve, impossible to solve. But I am really confident that the Irish people will understand the importance of this decision," said Mr. Prodi.
European Parliament President Pat Cox, who is Irish, called for his countrymen to remove what he described as "one of the last bricks of the Berlin Wall" so that the East can finally rejoin the European family.