The European Union is close to a deal that will allow it to conclude negotiations with eight eastern European countries and two Mediterranean islands that hope to join the bloc in 2004. That word comes from Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who is chairing a two-day EU summit in Brussels, where he hopes to gain a consensus on how to finance the group's enlargement.
After a lengthy working dinner with his fellow EU heads of state and government, Mr. Rasmussen told reporters he is optimistic that the group's 15 member countries will agree by Friday on how they should pay for the EU's historic expansion into eastern Europe and the Mediterranean.
"Tonight we have experienced a real breakthrough," said Mr. Rasmussen. "Now, I'm confident that, tomorrow, the presidency will get the clear mandate for the final negotiations with the candidate countries." Mr. Rasmussen wants to conclude Denmark's stewardship of the EU by wrapping up the negotiations with the 10 candidates for membership in time for a December summit in Copenhagen, at which they will be formally invited to join the prosperous western European club.
The negotiations have been held up by disputes over how big a subsidy package the EU should give the new members. Net contributors to the EU budget, like Germany, have argued that enlargement should be linked to a reduction of the EU's massive farm subsidies. France, a net beneficiary of that program, has always resisted a cut in aid to its farmers.
But that dispute appeared to have ended Thursday when French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder struck a compromise deal that will put a cap on EU agricultural spending as of 2007.
Mr. Rasmussen says the Franco-German accord paved the way for a spirit of compromise among other EU leaders as they discussed the thorny question of financial aid to new members.
"We all welcomed this agreement and, of course, it contributed to finding a basis for a possible compromise, but let me underline that the European Union is a union of 15, and nothing has been agreed upon until all 15 agree to our texts tomorrow," he said.
The Franco-German deal also endorses a European Commission proposal to phase in farm subsidies to new EU members over a 10-year period, a plan that has been criticized by candidate states as lacking in generosity but one which Mr. Rasmussen says now has the full backing of EU leaders.