GOTEBORG, Sweden – The European Union ended a riot-scarred summit Saturday with a strong signal that the first new members from the east may join as early as 2004, drawing immediate praise from candidate nations.
The leaders of the 15-nation EU said the aim is for the most promising newcomers to participate in the 2004 European Parliament elections "as members" after concluding entry talks late next year.
"We reaffirmed our commitment to enlargement," said British Prime Minister Tony Blair. "It's important these countries come in. We're talking about the security and prosperity of millions of people."
The use of the words "as members" in a final summit statement marked a change from previous declarations and was applauded by former Soviet bloc states that have been pushing the EU to set clear dates for membership.
"The absence of a target date would have been seen as diluting the prospect of membership," said Jacek Saryusz-Wolski, Poland's European affairs minister. He said the mention of 2004 "motivated Poland to accelerate the membership negotiations."
Slovenia's European affairs minister, Igor Bavcar, said he was "highly appreciative" of the EU statement. Lithuanian Prime Minister Rolandas Paksas called the statement "a step forward" and added, "I firmly believe Lithuania will be a member of the European Union in 2004."
Powerful Germany and France, whose postwar cooperation led to the formation of the EU, entered the summit preferring to name no dates at all for the addition of a dozen prospective members, most of them former Soviet republics or satellite states.
German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said Saturday that regardless of the mention of 2004, candidates must work hard to get their economies in shape for EU membership. He told reporters the summit simply sent "a signal the enlargement process will be continuing."
The EU began entry talks with Hungary, Poland, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, Cyprus and Estonia in 1998 and with Malta, Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Latvia and Lithuania last year.
"Candidate countries have made impressive progress," the summit statement said. It said that the EU's ambitious expansion plan was "irreversible."
The EU got a shock on June 7 when Irish voters rejected a treaty adopted last December to set the stage for enlargement. The treaty must be ratified by all 15 EU members, but Ireland is the only country whose constitution requires a referendum.
Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern insisted the referendum result was a rooted in "misconceptions" about European integration and said the issue would be put to a new vote, probably in 2002.
In their statement Saturday, the EU leaders also pledged to work for swift ratification of the Kyoto Protocol, a 1997 accord to combat global warming that President Bush rejected early in his term, angering Europe.
As the summit wound down, police in the western Swedish port city braced for more of the rioting that started Thursday when the EU leaders met with Bush.
Thousands of demonstrators converged on a square for an anti-EU protest and demonstrated peacefully, but were kept at a distance from the tightly secured complex where the summit was held.
Two days of rampages have injured more than 70 people, including three who suffered gunshot wounds during street fighting late Friday around Goteborg University, near the summit site.
Earlier Friday, demonstrators smashed store windows, tore down traffic signs and set bonfires. Some 25,000 activists have converged on Goteborg, many to protest globalization, European integration and capitalism.
The riots forced EU leaders to cancel a dinner at a trendy downtown restaurant Friday and eat inside the tightly guarded convention complex instead. Several delegations switched hotels.