The Prime Ministers of four East European countries expected to join the European Union in 2004 say they will insist on higher agricultural subsidies than the Union is offering. The issue could delay the planned EU expansion. The leaders, from Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic, released a statement on the issue during a meeting in Budapest.
Following weekend talks, the four Prime Ministers of the countries known as the Visegrad Group said they oppose EU plans to give them, initially, a quarter of the agricultural subsidies current members receive.
Under the EU plan, the 10 countries that are expected to join in 2004 would gradually receive full payments within 10 years after they enter the Union.
But Prime Ministers Peter Medgyessy of Hungary, Vladimir Spidla of the Czech Republic, Leszek Miller of Poland and Mikulas Dzurinda of Slovakia, issued a statement demanding higher payments and a shorter transition period.
The four countries are reported to want 35 percent of the full subsidies, rather than the 25 percent the European Union is offering. Denmark, the current holder of the EU presidency, has warned that countries that fail to agree to the Union's terms before its next summit, on December 12, will not be able to join until 2007.
Hungarian and other Government officials have rejected that position as a threat. They say they will continue to negotiate the agricultural subsidies right up until the summit, and during it if necessary, in order to get a better deal for the millions of farmers in Eastern Europe.
Meanwhile, Hungary says it will hold a referendum on EU membership in April. Opinion polls show that more than seven out of 10 Hungarians want to join the European Union, but there is concern that support may decline if the subsidy issue is not resolved and people feel the cost of membership will be too high.