European Union leaders have expressed full confidence that negotiations with 10 new prospective members will be completed by the end of this year. That would clear the way for the eight eastern European countries, along with Cyprus and Malta, to join the bloc in 2004. EU foreign ministers meeting outside Copenhagen also had high praise for recent political reforms in Turkey.
There are still several big obstacles ahead in the next few months, but EU foreign ministers emerged from their meeting in the Danish town of Helsingoer saying the political momentum is swinging solidly in favor of enlargement. Danish Foreign Minister Per Stig Moeller said many of the former East bloc countries have been dreaming of being part of a united Europe for 50 years. Now, he stressed, is the time to act.
"There have been negotiations for a couple years or more," said Mr. Moeller. "Chapters are closed. Acquis have been arrived at. So there's nothing new. The new is only to come to the point where you make the final decisions. That doesn't mean you need two years more, because what do you use them for. You know the problems, you know the possibilities, you know the choices, you have to choose."
Mr. Moeller's comment was plainly part of an effort to gloss over the objections that are still in the minds of several members. Germany, the Netherlands, Britain and Sweden, for instance, still have strong reservations over agricultural subsidies that will have to be paid to the eastern Europeans. But sitting alongside the Danish foreign minister after Friday's meeting, European Commissioner for expansion Guenter Verheugen emphasized his message to the candidate countries is, it will work.
"An exchange of views like this afternoon is like an early warning system," he said. "Ministers would normally give hints whether there are problems or not, whether new obstacles or not. And I can tell you, no new problems and no new obstacles. A very strong commitment to bring the job to an end."
Mr. Verheugen said two other prospective EU members, Romania and Bulgaria are also making progress in their bids to join, though they are still some time away. Officials were also positive about developments in another candidate member, Slovakia.
But they saved their highest praise for Turkey. The Danish foreign minister described as 'inspiring' Turkey's recent moves to abolish the death penalty and to grant language rights to its Kurdish minority. "We welcome the progress made by the reform package, and we find it very inspiring that Turkey in this way has moved firmly towards Europe," said Mr. Moeller.
The foreign ministers will continue their informal talks Saturday, taking up a series of difficult issues, including Iraq, the Middle East, and whether to allow member countries to negotiate separately with the United States on exempting U.S. citizens from prosecution by the International Criminal Court on war crimes charges.
EU legal experts have said such individual agreements would violate international law and defeat the purpose of the court, but Mr. Moeller, the Danish foreign minister, says a 15-member panel of legal experts has been asked to find a compromise.