EU enlargement-environment talks kick off

Six "first wave" countries involved in start to serious pre-accession screening process

A major series of talks between the European Commission and six countries aiming to join the EU are to begin in Brussels tomorrow. Lasting two months and involving up to 70 officials from each accession country and 16 units in the Commission's environment directorate, DGXI, the process is the main precursor to political negotiations, which could begin some time in 2000.

Initial contacts between the EU and the six "first wave" accession countries are already well established (ENDS Daily 19 November 1998), but the new meetings mark the real beginning of formal discussions. The outcome could affect not only the timetable for particular countries joining the EU - meeting EU environmental standards is accepted as being a key challenge for the aspiring new members - but also the development of EU more generally.

Styled an "analytical examination" of legal and institutional readiness to join the EU, the talks will involve both multilateral meetings involving all six countries and bilateral discussions between the Commission and individual countries. The Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Poland, Slovenia and Cyprus will all be represented.

The talks begin with a three-day multilateral session, at which the Commission will give a detailed presentation of the EU's environmental "acquis", or framework of existing laws. The presentations will focus on legislation on water protection and nature conservation as well as horizontal laws such as the EU's so-called reporting directives, which require EU member states to submit regular reports on their state of compliance with environmental laws.

A first series of bilateral meetings will begin next week, aimed at beginning to define serious problem areas for each individual country, where political negotiations might later prove necessary. Two further rounds of multilateral and then bilateral meetings are planned for the end of January and mid-February.

By the end of the process, the Commission is hoping to have a "complete overview" of the key environmental obstacles that will need to be overcome during the accession process. It expects to report its conclusions to the Council of Ministers by this summer, which will then take a view on whether and when to fire the starting pistol for political negotiations. The six accession countries will simultaneously submit their own position papers.

Follow Up:
European Commission DGXI enlargement unit, e-mail: enlargement@dg11.cec.be

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