May Day 2004 was expected to be confirmed today as the official membership date for 10 new countries joining the European Union.
The other option – April Fool’s Day – was likely to be rejected because it offers an open goal to eurosceptics and headline writers. Some believe that May Day, the international distress signal, is dubious for similar reasons, but a third possible date of May 9 2004 has been already rejected.
May 9 is marked in Europe every year as “Schuman Day“, after the French foreign minister and EU founder Robert Schuman, but purists say the official launch of EU expansion must fall on the first of a month.
The decision was being made at a joint meeting of the 15 EU foreign ministers and the foreign ministers of the 10 candidate countries – Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, the Slovak Republic and Slovenia.
The original plan was to complete all membership preparations by the start of 2004, but today’s meeting was confirming that the timetable is too tight: all 25 countries must ratify the expansion agreement expected to be signed at a summit in Copenhagen next month, and some will need more than a year.
“We can be ready on January 1 2004 and some others cannot and a small delay is not significant,” said a British government spokesman.
But there are more important hurdles to enlargement still remaining and today’s meeting sees the start of a final push by the 10 for better EU entry terms from the 15, including more cash and other concessions as the price of reunifying the European continent.
All have been guaranteed that EU membership will not leave them in the red in the first few years, but some are now quibbling because their full entitlement to EU farm payments is being phased in over a decade and not paid all at once.
Some, such as Latvia, want special “opt-out” deals from EU laws to allow them to carry on shooting lynxes and bears, while Estonia is keen to fish for a very small breed of Baltic herring which would escape through the holes of nets meeting Common Fisheries Policy standards.
There is nothing new is such bartering: when the Swedes joined they insisted on being allowed to carry on producing strong chewing tobacco which did not conform to EU norms, while the Danes wanted to continue banning Germans from snapping up cheap holiday homes along the Danish coast – hardly in line with the EU single market.
Such concessions are always temporary but vital for countries making the transition to a sweeping set of EU rules which must be adopted as part of the membership terms.
All 10 countries will be making financial contributions to the EU budget – but for at least three years those sums will be outweighed by the grants and subsidies they get from Brussels.
Just how big the “net benefit” will be from EU membership will depend on the “endgame” negotiations which must be completed by the time EU leaders meet in Copenhagen on December 12 to approve the accession terms.