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EU Summit Opens Amid Negotiation of New Membership - 2002-12-12

The European Union has opened a two-day summit in Copenhagen that is aimed at expanding the bloc beyond the old Iron Curtain by bringing in eight Eastern European countries and two Mediterranean islands. But EU leaders are also under pressure to set a date for Turkey to begin talks on its own membership in the union.

This is supposed to be the EU summit that seals the reunification of Europe 13 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. But what was intended to be a celebratory occasion has been hit by last-minute snags as Poland and some other candidates for membership seek more money, mainly for their inefficient farm sectors.

Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who has been leading the EU's negotiations with the newcomers, says he has no more cash to offer them. And he says they would do well to accept the $40 billion financial aid package the EU is willing to give them for their first three years of membership. If they do not, he warns, they might jeopardize their chances of joining the union for several years.

"I'll not say it's a question of now or never. But it's a question of now or postponement, for years. Maybe for many years," he said.

Though EU diplomats say most of the candidate countries are ready to accept the union's offer, Poland and Malta are still holding out. Mr. Rasmussen says the EU will not wait for those who refuse to strike a deal now. He says the holdouts may have to wait until 2007 before they join.

Still, the Danish leader is trying to put a positive spin on the EU's expansion into what used to be communist territory.

"Since 1989, a huge effort has been made in eastern and western Europe to bring us where we are today," Mr. Rasmussen said. "Our task is to conclude the work and finally reunite as one Europe."

The enlargement summit is also supposed to give Turkey a message about when it can expect to initiate talks to become an EU member. The Turks want to begin such talks next year. France, Germany and most other EU countries have proposed 2005 as a start date, while Britain and Italy want to give the Turks a positive message and are proposing 2004 as the limit. Mr. Rasmussen says he will come up with a compromise during the course of the summit.

President Bush is lobbying the EU on Turkey's behalf. Mr. Rasmussen says he appreciates U.S. advice but that it is strictly up to the Europeans to decide when Turkey should begin its accession talks.