BRUSSELS (REUTER) - The European Commission, flying in the face of Franco-German eagerness to see the European Union embrace former Iron Curtain countries at the millennium, said on Wednesday no new country was likely to join before 2002. Days after French President Jacques Chirac told the Czech Republic he saw no reason why it and other central European neighbours could not join by 2000, the EU executive predicted lengthy and complicated talks. The Commission - charged with preparing the groundwork for talks with 10 applicant central and eastern European countries - was only saying in public what officials have been saying privately for some time. But the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary - the most economically advanced applicants - hung on to every word recently as Chirac and French Foreign Minister Herve de Charette said a target date of 2000 was achievable if there was "political will". Chirac, trying to overturn the east's vision of France as against its integration, is championning the enlargement into former communist Europe and the enlargement of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. He counts on the backing of France's ally of modern times, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. As the shining economic stars of the former communist bloc Poland, Hungary, and the Czech republic have lobbied hard to get in on their own merits and not wait for struggling countries like Bulgaria and Romania to catch up. The three Baltic States - Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania - have also applied, along with Slovenia and Slovakia. Warsaw, Prague and Budapest are also seen as favourites to be invited for a first wave of separate expansion talks at NATO at an alliance summit set for July 8-9 in Madrid. Alliance sources said on Wednesday Slovenia was emerging as the best placed outsider. Romania was likely to be left out of NATO's first expansion, despite heavy lobbying by France, they said. The European Commission confirmed that it was unlikely the new EU members would be able to join the bloc at the same time. The Commission is currently working on individual advice - taking into account the political and economic situation in each country. Following recent uncertainty over timing it promised to unveil the advice "immediately after the conclusion of the EU inter-governmental conference" (IGC) on a new EU treaty. The treaty is scheduled to be concluded in June at the EU's Amsterdam summit. On Wednesday it pointed to improvements which were needed in some countries in judicial systems, privatisation and banking and said some countries still had to prove respect for minorities and independence for radio and television stations. "Democratic criteria are going to be an important element in the opinions. The performance of the applicant countries is on the whole satisfactory but some problems are apprarent," the Commission said. The EU is also due to start talks with Cyprus while Malta's application to join has been put on hold.