The European Union says up to 10 countries could be ready to join the bloc by the year 2004.
There are 13 candidate countries, but Turkey has not even begun negotiations with the European Union, and the report says Ankara still has a long way to go before it can start formal talks with the organization. The report says Turkey must improve its human rights situation and contribute to the solution of the Cyprus problem. It also calls on Turkish Cypriots to reach a settlement to end the island's division and thus reap the benefits of Cyprus' eventual membership in the Union.
Cyprus and another Mediterranean island, Malta, are considered front-runners for membership. The EU says that, in the case of Cyprus, reunification will not be a precondition for its accession. Diplomats say Greece has made it clear that, if Cyprus is not among the first to join, Athens will take its time in approving the entry of other countries.
The other candidates are five countries in central Europe, three from the Baltics and two from the Balkans. The report says these last two, Bulgaria and Romania, still lack market economies and lag behind the other eight ex-Communist candidates. But diplomats say both countries are aware that they will not be able to join the Union in the first wave and are aiming for accession in the year 2006.
The report says the Central European candidates are all on track for membership, but Poland, the biggest of them all, still has problems in preparing its huge farm sector to meet EU requirements. It says the Czech Republic's economic progress will enable it to cope soon with competition from more developed EU economies. The report says Hungary is also on target for meeting the requirements for membership by 2004. And it praises Slovenia for moving faster than most to prepare for joining the bloc. Slovakia, a late starter in meeting the stringent criteria for membership, is said to be catching up.
Among the Baltic states, Estonia is lauded for reforming its economy, overhauling its legal system and modernizing public administration. The EU considers it a front-runner. It says Latvia has made progress in catching up with its northern neighbor, and that Lithuania, too, is closing the gap with the other candidates and should be ready soon to compete in the EU market.
But the EU says that in most, if not all, of the 10 countries considered to be on track for membership by 2004, more work has to be done to improve judicial systems and public administration. It says at least half of them also have to do more to fight corruption.