Auteur: | By Honor Mahony
EUOBSERVER/ BRUSSELS - Despite having six months of EU membership under their belts and a year of 'observer status' before that, diplomats from the ten new member states are still learning the ropes.
How the EU makes its laws, takes decisions and generally goes about its daily business is notoriously complex - making it seem like an impenetrable maze for newcomers.
A good measure of this difficulty are the weekly meetings going under the not particularly illuminating name of COREPER (Comité de Representantes Permanentes).
It is here that member states' ambassadors pre-negotiate EU laws and decisions, which are later formally agreed by EU ministers.
These meetings - famed for their length and, often, for their tediousness - are based on a series of procedures and rules and established policy that can make even the most seasoned diplomat blanche.
80 percent of Union decisions
Due to this, contributions from the new member states on EU policy are still "mostly on the defensive", says recently appointed Slovak ambassador Maros Sefcovic - an important admission as up to 80% of Union decisions are made at this level.
At these meetings, ambassadors can find themselves discussing the intricacies of laws dealing with pension rights, compensation payments for farmers or setting CO2 trade emissions for industry.
Often the debates can come down to where to put the comma in a sentence.
According to one high-ranking diplomat, a recent debate on the Kyoto Protocol "had to be seen to be believed".
Out of this, the ambassadors may decide to recommend a 'common approach', consider themselves in 'political agreement' or perhaps reach a 'common position'.
"This is in general very difficult for the new member states", says Slovak deputy ambassador, Juraj Nociar, referring to these specific procedural rules.
"I think that I have finally understood after being here for one year", he joked.
Absorbing the new psychology
However, both Mr Sefcovic and Mr Nociar admit that they often have to ask their colleagues from the old member states for help.
Some of them have been around for years and "know their stuff up to down and back to front".
At the negotiating table, Slovakia's immediate neighbours are the Greek and Danish ambassadors - both of whom are deemed "very helpful".
It is no coincidence that Mr Sefcovic's neighbours are from old member states - this was done on purpose for all diplomats from new member states to help them find their feet more quickly.
But the learning process for new member states goes beyond mere procedures.
"We have to absorb the new psychology of being a member state", says Mr Sefcovic.
One of the most difficult aspects is ensuring that everyone sings from the same hymnbook - that officials do not say one thing in one technical meeting and something else in another.
It's no longer possible for new member states to simply "change their minds" quickly, says Mr Sefcovic.
A new mindset
Another issue for new member states, most of whom only recently came to democracy and have now given a lot of power to Brussels, is persuading reluctant ministries at home that some domestic positions are untenable when 25 member states have to agree.
"You have to persuade your colleagues at home [of] what is reasonably achievable", says the Slovak ambassador.
But 'old' member states have to learn, as well.
Not only do they have to adjust to share space, time and polices with ten new countries ranging from the vociferous Poland to the tiny Malta - the new member states, mainly from central and eastern Europe, have brought with them a new mindset.
The newcomers' general sympathy to a more Anglo-Saxon free-market view of the world, plus their Atlanticist approach are especially hard for France and Germany to swallow - both of whom were very used to ruling the roost in a Union of 15 member states.
Paris and Berlin's objections notwithstanding, the new countries are slowly "finding their voices".
"At the beginning, they hardly said anything", said an EU official.
But with many voices around the table - this can lead to a whole set of different problems.
The one thing for which there is universal thankfulness, is that speaking times in these meetings are now restricted to just three minutes and if a point has already been made by one country, ambassadors are not supposed to repeat it.
"Before these rules were introduced it could be quite literally awful", said the official but added that the "waffle" had not entirely disappeared.