The European Union says it is making progress in its negotiations with countries seeking to join the bloc and that it is on track to conclude talks with up to 10 candidates by the end of the year. The toughest issues, those that involve money, will only be dealt with in the final stages of the negotiations.
Denmark, which holds the EU's rotating presidency, has vowed to wrap up negotiations with the first wave of candidate countries by the time it holds an EU summit in Copenhagen in December.
That would allow them to become full-fledged members in 2004 after ratification of their accession treaty by the 15 current EU members, the European Parliament and the candidates themselves.
Denmark's ambassador to the EU, Poul Christoffersen, says his country wants to resolve all non-financial questions as soon as possible so that both sides can focus on the money issues, like agriculture and direct aid to poor regions, from October onward.
Mr. Christoffersen says a round of negotiations over the past two days removed just under half of the remaining non-financial obstacles to membership for the candidate countries.
"We are making steady progress toward achieving the goal, which you know is the goal of the Danish presidency, to be able to conclude negotiations with the first group of countries by the time of the European Council in Copenhagen," he said.
Candidate countries must align their domestic laws with those of the EU in some 30 so-called chapters, or policy areas, before they qualify for membership in the bloc.
Mr. Christoffersen announced Tuesday that Poland, the biggest of the candidate countries, reached an agreement with the EU whereby it will strengthen its eastern border with Belarus, Russia and Ukraine to make sure it does not become a gateway for traffickers of arms, drugs and human beings. The EU also concluded important deals with Estonia on energy and with Hungary on audio-visual policies.
Eneko Landaburu, the chief enlargement negotiator for the European Commission, the EU's executive body, says the toughest part lies ahead. Speaking through an interpreter, he says it is now up to the current members to agree on the financial package that will pay for enlargement, a deeply controversial issue that has divided Germany and France, the EU's two major players.
"If we don't have unanimity, there will be delays in the enlargement process, and then we have to forget Copenhagen as a target," Mr. Landaburu said.
How to fund enlargement is a matter that has been put on hold until after the German elections in September. But EU expansion faces another obstacle: a referendum in Ireland on the Nice Treaty, which adapts EU institutions to an enlarged union. Irish voters rejected the treaty last year but will be asked to give a second and final verdict later this year.
Ambassador Christoffersen admits being nervous about the outcome.
"If the Irish referendum would give a "no", then we would enter into extremely complicated waters, and it would be impossible for me today to predict what would happen in that situation."
Most EU officials say another "no" vote in Ireland would delay but not sink the enlargement process.