Enlargement row splits EU summit
NYKOPING, Sweden -- A dispute over the free movement of people in an expanded European Union has divided EU foreign ministers at a summit in Sweden.
Germany and Austria are insisting that East European workers be kept out of the current member states for seven years after their nations join to the regional body.
Spain, Greece, and Portugal have agreed to the transition period, but only on the proviso that they suffer no reduction in EU handouts.
They are seeking a guarantee that the influx of less prosperous new members will not lead to a drop in the billions of dollars in regional aid they get from the EU.
But Germany and Austria objected to the aid guarantee, setting the stage for more fractious negotiations in the weeks ahead.
Sweden said it would prepare a new compromise proposal on free movement of labour which the foreign ministers would discuss at their next meeting in Brussels in mid-May.
Swedish Foreign Minister Anna Lindh, whose country holds the EU presidency and who is hosting the summit at Nykoping, said she hoped the issue can be settled by July.
"It is very important to have a strong message to send to the candidate countries at Gothenburg in June," said Frank Belfrage, head of EU affairs at the Swedish Foreign Ministry.
A compromise by the EU executive Commission calls for a two-year waiting period for East European workers for all 15 EU nations that may be extended by three years.
A second two-year extension would then be possible for individual EU governments.
The spat soured the atmosphere at a meeting at which the 15 EU foreign ministers also met with counterparts from 13 candidate nations to hear their views of Europe's future economic and political integration.
The EU has set no entry dates for new members, but the most promising candidates -- Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Malta and Poland -- may join as early as 2004.
The others -- Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and Turkey -- are in a much slower group.
The European Commission estimates that admitting 10 East European nations to the EU could result in a migration to the more prosperous west of 3.9 million people over 30 years. Most are expected to go to Germany and Austria.
Spain worries the EU's expansion will dry up the flow of regional aid for its backward regions, which totaled 42.9 billion euros ($38.3 billion) in the 2000-2006 period.
Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Pique said his country was pleading for "solidarity."
A seven-year ban on East European workers is meant to prevent an influx of cheap labour that may aggravate anti-immigrant feelings. A similar waiting period was used when Spain and Portugal joined the EU in 1986.
German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer said Germans fear a disproportionate westward migration of East Europeans to the EU's richest economy.
Fischer rejected any attempt to fuse workers' movement and the aid issues into a single negotiating package.
"Enlargement is in the European interest and not a German project, but the financial room for manoeuvre is limited," he said.
Austrian Foreign Minister Benita Ferrero-Waldner made a similar plea, telling reporters, "Austria is the only country surrounded by four candidate countries. ... We have to protect our employees. We have to slowly open the market."
The candidates' foreign ministers, also in Nykoping on Sunday, seemed philosophical about the haggling.
"It's part of the game," said Estonian Foreign Minister Toomas Hendrik Ilves. "This is what the big boys do, haggle over other people's futures. We'll haggle soon too."
But he repeated the candidates' view that curbs on free movement could undermine popular support for EU membership.
The EU foreign ministers also discussed the situation in the Balkans on Sunday, especially escalating fighting in Macedonia.
EU expansion fears aired
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