Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 25
13 December 1999

Detail of ten-euro note E U   S U M M I T:
Return to Helsinki

Martin D Brown

The European Union (EU) Summit in Helsinki that ended on Saturday, should have been the most important meeting of the decade. Under consideration was the very nature and shape of the EU in the next millennium, and presumably of Europe herself. In theory the outcome of the Helsinki summit could fundamentally re-draw the political, economic and physical map of Europe. It could result, in the most far-reaching changes to be implemented on the continent since the conclusion of the East West Summit in Helsinki, twenty-four years ago, in 1975.

The reality, however, has turned out to be somewhat less inspirational. Despite high hopes the Summit seems to have decided on very little.

The divisions and conflicts amongst the member states took centre stage, in the West's media at least, and have largely drowned out wider comment on the ten Central and East European counties that have now been invited to the accession talks. The ongoing Anglo-French beef war, the Euro Army and Turkey's begrudging acceptance of candidature, finally proffered after 36 years, drowned out the "big story" - the return to Europe of the former Soviet bloc.

More worryingly, few concrete decisions on the methodology required for EU enlargement were made, let alone decisions concerning the economic and political reforms that the EU itself will need to undertake before it can double its size. These must now wait for yet another inter-governmental conference (IGC) next year.

So, what were the effects of the summit on Central, South-eastern and Eastern Europe? Clearly the most important announcement was that, in addition to Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Estonia and Slovenia, negotiations would be started on accession with Bulgaria, Romania, Latvia, Lithuania and Slovakia. Note the vagary of the phrase.

But even this news has a somewhat provisional aspect to it. In the Bulgarian and Romanian cases the applicants are far from complying with the stringent Copenhagen criteria. Their inclusion on the list may well be more a result of their supportive attitudes toward NATO during the Kosovo crisis rather than the state of their respective economies.

The EU has also voiced concerns regarding Latvia and Lithuania's treatment of their Russian minorities. All four countries seem unlikely to be granted membership in the first wave. By comparison, Slovakia seems to be in a relatively good position - not least because of the Czech government's desire to eliminate its own border with the new wild East. Though Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman made it clear that Slovakia's application would not be allowed to hinder the Czech one.

Of course, even those six states on the previous front-runners' list still have some way to go before they will be ready for entrance. For example, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Poland and Slovenia all need to address several issues over the harmonisation of their legal systems with the EU. Then there are the necessary internal legislative reforms that will follow and the alarming spectre of national referendums on EU membership.

Significantly, the announcement of firm dates for entrance - to many the most eagerly awaited outcome of the Summit - was conspicuous for its confusion.

The great date debate continues

That is not to say that the issue of dates was not brought up. It was. But the great date debate was not resolved. The Summit decided that the first new members will join by 1 January 2002, but which countries these might be was unclear. It is, of course, open to speculation whether the EU itself will be ready to accept new members by this date.

In the case of the Czech Republic, the Summit felt the country would be ready by 1 January 2004; Slovakia, probably by 2006. All well and good - except for the fact this is not want the Czech government thinks. Both Prime Minister Zeman and Foreign Minister Jan Kavan are on record as saying that the Czech Republic will be ready by 1 January 2003. Poland, Estonia, Slovenia and Cyprus seem to feel likewise about their own readiness.

Notably, when questioned, EU Commissioner Guenter Verheugen refused to be drawn on specific dates for any country.

So, it seems that, even after the Helsinki Summit, we are no nearer to knowing when the EU will actually take these Central and East European countries on board. Possibly 2002 or possibly not; possibly 2004; or maybe even 2006.

For a Summit that was supposed to finally clear the air and set definite targets on EU enlargement, Helsinki seems to have brought only further confusion and delaying tactics.

Martin D Brown, 12 December 1999


EU enlargement site:

Finnish EU Presidency site:

Text of 1975 Helsinki Accords:



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