COPENHAGEN European Union leaders yesterday set the stage for the EU’s largest expansion ever, agreeing on financial terms with 10 countries, mostly from the formerly communist Eastern Bloc, to bring them into the union in 2004.
At the same time, the EU leaders told Turkey it can open its membership negotiations “without further delay” if it meets membership criteria in a December 2004 review.
The date was two years later than Turkey had wanted, but firmer than initially offered.
Turkey, a NATO ally, immediately reciprocated.
At a meeting of NATO envoys in Brussels, it lifted its long-standing veto on EU plans to mount peacekeeping operations using NATO assets such as heavy transport planes, command-and-control facilities and satellite intelligence gathering.
“EU access to NATO planning capabilities for EU-led operations is now assured, effective immediately,” NATO Secretary-General George Robertson said at the alliance headquarters in Brussels.
Turkish Prime Minister Abdullah Gul came to the EU summit in Copenhagen demanding a 2003 starting date for entry negotiations. Washington has long pressed the EU to reach out to Turkey and anchor it in the world of Western democracies. The United States also likely will need Turkish bases if it comes to a war against Iraq.
But the focus yesterday was on the agreements with 10 new members, sealed after four years of arduous negotiations.
“Accession of 10 new member states will bring an end to the divisions in Europe,” said Romano Prodi, the president of the European Commission, the EU’s executive branch. “For the first time in history, Europe will become one because unification is the free will of its people,” he added.
The accord came at the end of a two-day summit at which several candidates notably Poland successfully held out for more subsidies and other benefits.
The EU will pay $42 billion over the 2004-2006 period in farm and other subsidies for the new member states about $430 million more than what was on offer at the outset of the Copenhagen talks.
“It was a good deal,” said Polish Prime Minister Leszek Miller. “In my opinion, we can sell this in a referendum” in which Polish voters must endorse the expansion agreement.
The deal brings 10 candidates Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia and the Mediterranean islands of Cyprus and Malta into the union.
Their entry will be the EU’s largest, most ambitious expansion ever and one that carries huge political significance, for it will erase for good the last traces of the continent’s Cold War divide.
The EU leaders also confirmed that Bulgaria and Romania remain on track to join the EU in 2007.
The EU leaders had a rough time with candidate Turkey. At one point during the two-day summit, Mr. Gul accused the EU of discriminating against his country of 66 million Muslims by not fixing a firm date to begin talks on bringing it into the club as well.
In the end, the EU reluctantly said it will start membership negotiations in early 2005, shortly after the EU has assessed if Turkey meets EU human rights, democracy and economic-performance criteria.
The plan marks the culmination of years of work to unite the continent after more than four decades of Iron Curtain division. It will be the first expansion since Austria, Finland and Sweden joined in 1995, bringing the current total to 15 countries.
With the new members, the EU will surpass the North American Free Trade Agreement as the world’s largest market, with 445 million people compared with NAFTA’s 416 million.
One area where the summit failed to find agreement was the division of Cyprus. U.N.-mediated talks on the margin of the EU meeting were unable to bring Turkish and Greek Cypriots together around a peace plan that would end the 28-year division of the Mediterranean island.