Tensions rise as EU expansion endgame begins


The European Union and ex-communist central Europe squabbled today over the conduct of membership negotiations in a sign of rising tension as final stage talks on enlargement begin.

Poland and the Czech Republic warned they would rather let the EU entry timetable slip than accept unfavourable membership terms presented at the last minute on a non-negotiable basis.

In Brussels, the EU slotted in an extra round of enlargement negotiations to try to keep the programme for admitting up to 10 mainly east European states in 2004 on track.

It opened talks on agriculture policy just a week after EU leaders at their Seville summit failed to agree on the key issue of direct payments to east European farmers.

At the insistence of German Chancellor Mr Gerhard Schröder, the 15 EU members have postponed until at least November a decision on whether costly subsidies should be extended eastwards.

Mr Schröder later said a decision might not come until the Copenhagen summit in December, effectively leaving the candidates no time to lobby for changes or extract concessions in other areas in return for agreeing the farm subsidies deal. Polish Foreign Minister Mr Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz said he had warned EU ministers last week against delaying tactics.

"If normal conditions are not created for negotiations, then we will demand (talks) are extended. We will not be blackmailed into accepting that the enlargement train leaves at a particular time," Mr Cimoszewicz said.

"Should there be a 'take it or leave it' proposal, then my advice to the Czech government would be to continue until we have results that are mutually acceptable," the Czech Republic's chief negotiator Mr Pavel Telicka said in Brussels. The candidates fear the EU will take advantage of their desire to join the bloc as soon as possible by using brinkmanship to keep the cost of admitting new members low.