BRUSSELS: Romano Prodi, the new President of the European Commission, has wasted no time in laying down a challenge on the biggest issue facing Europe today: the pace and the scale of enlargement of the European Union, and what this enlargement will mean for the EU itself. It is a challenge whose implications may be deeply unwelcome to the governments, and the electorates, of many of the Member States. Indeed, Prodi told the European Parliament that he would recommend that membership negotiations, (currently under way with five countries from Central and Eastern Europe, plus Cyprus), should also be opened with the second wave of six applicants: the remaining five countries from the CEE, plus Malta.
He also implied that the countries of the Balkans should become virtual members of the European Union, even before they could possibly qualify as real members. And he said that Turkey, until now treated by the EU as a political pariah, must be considered a potential candidate, provided it first makes far-reaching political reforms.
First impressions of Prodi's remarks, in some candidate countries, was that he appeared to be recommending that EU membership should be easier and quicker. This was a serious misunderstanding. To be sure, Prodi was recommending a more flexible negotiating process, in which all the candidates from Central and Eastern Europe would be treated on their merits; so individual candidates in the second wave might be able to catch up with the first.
And in fact some candidates in the second wave are making good progress. The Commission has particular praise for the efforts of Latvia, Slovakia and Bulgaria, and suggests that, in economic terms, Latvia could be included in the first wave. But there is no suggestion that the membership criteria should be relaxed. On the contrary, the Commission continues to insist that the political and economic criteria must be strictly adhered to.