European Union leaders begin a summit Thursday evening in Brussels that is aimed at bridging deep rifts over funding the bloc's eastward expansion. The differences among member states threaten to delay the conclusion of accession talks with 10 candidates that hope to join the EU in 2004.
Ever since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, European Union leaders have been promising to unite the continent and bring the countries of Eastern Europe back into the European family. The Brussels summit offers them a chance to live up to those promises.
What they have to decide is how to pay for the bloc's enlargement, specifically what kind of farm subsidies and what kind of aid the 10 candidate members will get. And they also have to sort out among themselves which of the current 15 member countries is going to get less, in terms of the subsidies they now receive.
Net contributors to the EU's huge agricultural budget, countries like Germany, Britain, the Netherlands and Sweden, want the EU's farm subsidy program, known as the Common Agricultural Policy, to be reformed before they give their final assent to enlargement. But net beneficiaries of that program, notably France, say they want to postpone that discussion until the year 2006.
So a lot of hard bargaining is in store at what is supposed to be a two-day summit. Denmark, which holds the EU's rotating presidency, insists that the leaders must agree on how to fund enlargement at this summit.
The Danish ambassador to the EU, Poul Christoffersen, says his government is willing to keep the leaders in Brussels until Sunday in order to hammer out an accord.
"We are quite determined that we have to find a solution, at the latest, before people leave Brussels. It can be a long meeting," he said. "The Danish delegation has reserved hotel rooms until Sunday morning because we mean it, and, once in a while, we actually do what we mean."
Denmark wants negotiations with the 10, mostly former communist, candidate countries to be concluded by the time of a December summit in Copenhagen, when it hopes to formally invite the new members to join the bloc. Speaking through an interpreter at a news conference Thursday, Romano Prodi, the head of the EU's executive commission says concluding those negotiations depends on whether current EU members agree on how to fund the group's expansion at the Brussels summit.
"It is vital that we get a mandate in that council, so that we can then carry on the negotiations with the candidate countries to conclude those by [the time of] Copenhagen," he said.
German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and French President Jacques Chirac were meeting one-on-one Thursday to thrash out their differences over farm spending. But diplomats assigned to the EU say the two men seem unlikely to bridge the gap in their positions. If that is the case, the EU's enlargement plans could be thrown into disarray.