Cook urges reform on EU front-runners

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The Independent Online
Robin Cook will, on his three-country tour that starts in Budapest today, urge Hungarian, Czech and Polish leaders to speed difficult reforms. Katherine Butler says the visits form a key part of preparations for the most important expansion in the history of the European Union.

Five former Iron Curtain countries have been identified by the European Commission as suitable first-wave candidates for membership. With enlargement negotiations expected to start under Britain's EU presidency, the Foreign Secretary's mission will be to explain to leaders in Budapest, Prague and Warsaw how they can measure up for membership of the world's most powerful economic club.

A summit of EU heads of government in Luxembourg next month will select the countries with which they will begin enlargement negotiations. The consensus is that the first wave will comprise Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovenia, Estonia and Cyprus. Five others - Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Bulgaria and Romania - are considered too backward to join at this stage.

Mr Cook's choice of countries to visit this week is, therefore, no accident: Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland are the economic and political frontrunners in the race for EU membership. But they still face big obstacles if the goal of concluding negotiations by 2000 is to be met.

Mr Cook will remind the candidates that negotiations to admit Finland, Sweden and Austria, three of the most prosperous economies in Western Europe, took three years. By contrast, gross domestic product per capita in the five front-runners in the East is around 40 per cent of the EU average.

In Poland and Hungary, a quarter of the work force is still employed on the land and much agriculture is still at the horse and cart stage; assimilation into the EU's common farm policy could take years. Moreover, the 15 EU states are themselves deeply divided over the internal reforms they must tackle before new members can take their places around the table. Rifts have opened up on contributions to the budget and on reforms to the system of grant aid for poor EU regions.

In talks with the prime ministers, foreign ministers and other political figures, Mr Cook will explain the "selective" negotiating strategy Britain favours. The risk of the strategy is that it will deepen the divide between the first wave and those who face exclusion, which could dishearten reformists precisely in the countries where most needs to be done.

Lurking in the background will be Turkey, which has been seeking EU membership since 1963 and which, in spite of the deep hostility of Greece and Germany, Britain is anxious to include in the "European family". Most governments are now resigned to British plans to invite Turkey into a "European Conference", which will assemble all the membership applicants for regular talks with the 15 EU states on common areas of concern such as drugs, crime and trade.

Mr Cook will also be hoping to use this week's tour to drum up commitments to the priorities Britain wants to advance during its EU presidency. They include co-operation in tackling organised crime and improving treatment of ethnic minorities.