Central and Eastern European officials have praised a European Commission report that says eight former Communist countries, Malta and Cyprus can join the European Union in 2004. But government leaders concede much work remains amid concern about an Irish referendum on EU enlargement.
Officials from countries that were either past republics of the Soviet Union or its unwilling allies during the Cold War, expressed gratitude that they seem to have met the criteria to join the European Union in 2004.
The European Commission said that Malta, Cyprus, Estonia, Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Latvia, Lithuania and Slovakia could join the EU within two years.
In Slovakia, a Soviet satellite state while part of Czechoslovakia, Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda told reporters that the commission report shows that his country was standing "in front of the gates of historic enlargement and unification of Europe."
A similar sentiment was expressed by Czech Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda, who said that the report made clear that "the Czech Republic belongs among those prepared," to join the European Union.
In Latvia and Lithuania officials called the report "great" and "long awaited good news." And Prime Minister Janez Drnovsek of Slovenia described the report as "very positive."
Yet, Hungary's Foreign Minister Laszlo Kovacs admitted that obstacles for enlargement remain. The most immediate being an Irish referendum on October 19 in which voters will accept or reject the E-U treaty that allows for enlargement.
If they reject it, new members cannot be admitted in 2004, although Mr. Kovacs expressed confidence that a majority will vote for a larger union.
In addition other sensitive issues, such as agricultural subsidies, must still be negotiated.
Hungary, Poland and other candidate countries have expressed their outrage about European Commission plans to give farmers in new member states subsidies worth only 25 percent of those given to current EU farmers.
But in an apparent policy shift, Foreign Minister Kovacs told VOA that his country does not want to make this a make or break issue and that it is ready to compromise.
"For the time being we have no agreement because we have no common position on the size of the European Union," he said. "But we were promised that the EU will finalize its position after the EU summit on the 24th and 25th of October and it will be put on the negotiating table in the first days of November. So then we start the marathon run, the final round of the discussion, and we hope that by the end of the year we come to a compromise that will be accepted for both sites."
Mr. Kovacs also said that much work remains to be done in other fields.
He cited, for instance, the European Commission's call to Hungary and other countries to improve the environment, to better tackle corruption, and to end the wide spread discrimination of the region's large Roma, or Gypsy, minority.
The European Commission report came as a disappointment for two countries.
Government leaders in Romania and Bulgaria tried to put a good face on the commission finding that their countries would not be ready for membership before 2007, a date set by the two Balkan nations.
Pledging to carry out reforms in areas pin-pointed by the EU report, Romanian Prime Minister Adrian Nastase said: "We are aware that we have a lot left to do."
Analysts believe that the EU's planned eastward shift loosely parallels the expansion of NATO, whose leaders are expected to invite Slovenia, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Slovakia, Romania and Bulgaria in November to join the defense alliance.