EVIAN, France (AP) _ Guenther Verheugen, the European Union commissioner overseeing sensitive expansion talks with a dozen nations, stunned EU members over the weekend by saying Germany should hold a referendum on the EU's push eastward.

Verheugen's comments in the daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung Saturday appeared to violate a policy that EU executives shun politics in their home countries and defend the interests of all EU nationals.

In the newspaper interview, Verheugen said that Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder should ask Germans how they feel about the Union's expansion plans. Germany must not ``decide over the heads of the people (but hear) the valid fears of their citizens'' about an influx of cheap labor and rising crime, he said.

A recent EU survey found that for 68 percent of Germans feel the EU's expansion is not a priority.

Verheugen was criticized by Hubert Vedrine and Joschka Fischer, the French and German foreign ministers attending a ministerial meeting here.

On Saturday, European Commission President Romano Prodi asked Verheugen for an explanation. Verheugen said he made ``his comments only in the context of the debate in Germany,'' said EU spokesman Gunnar Wiegand.

The EU began talks in 1998 with Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Slovenia and Cyprus. This year, Bulgaria, Romania, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia and Malta were added to the list. Turkey is also a candidate, but entry talks are not expected to open for several years.

The negotiations are complex, with economic aspects of the candidates _ such as agriculture, trade and social polices, industrial standards and norms, transparent banking rules and so on _ expected to become compatible with those in the EU.