EU's new recruits move into Brussels

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The Independent Online
AN UNUSUAL new building stands amid the older villas on Avenue de Tervuren, in the heart of Brussels's diplomatic quarter. The elegant detailing, the spacious atrium and the commissioned art on the walls all combine to reinforce the impression of grandeur. Admittedly, fancy new Euro-buildings are two-a-penny in Brussels. But this one is different.

The granite and glass edifice is Poland's new embassy to the European Union. The first impression is that it is far too grand for a relatively impoverished country.

In reality, that inappropriateness is just the point. This building sends a clear message: the unimaginable is on the near horizon. The impossible (getting rid of Communism) was a mere hiccup, completed without difficulty in 1989. The miracle - creating a robust economy which can hold its own with western Europe - is taking a little longer.

To emphasise the symbolism, the embassy will open on 31 March - the same day that Poland and a clutch of other east European countries are officially admitted to the European ante-room, with a view to joining the EU in just a few years' time.

Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Estonia and the former Yugoslav republic of Slovenia - all move into the front row, together with Cyprus.

Things are changing, fast. On the one hand, a previously cautious Brussels is giving the go-ahead for nitty-gritty negotiations with the five (plus Cyprus). Meanwhile, the east Europeans have begun to face the complications of what EU membership will actually mean. Each prospective member country must comply with 80,000 pages of the acquis - Euro-speak for the whole shebang, the agreed school rules. As civil servants and ministers across eastern Europe begin to scrutinise the acquis, paragraph by daunting paragraph, the gushing optimism has given way to a sense of worry. The short-term difficulties are now as obvious as the long-term advantages of EU membership. When a group from Poland's main steel-making and coal-mining region visited Brussels, two questions topped the agenda: How many jobs will go? How painful will it be? Answer: lots, very. Other countries have similar concerns.

Environmental standards cause some of the most difficult problems, in a region the Communist rulers allowed to become polluted on an epic scale. Agriculture, too, is difficult: when senior officials visited Poland recently they found that the milk (though tasty) was light years away from required standards, though encouragingly Polish officials admitted as much.

The process of enlargement is riddled with political ironies. Nine years ago, Hungary made history by chopping a hole in the border fence that formed the Iron Curtain, paving the way for the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Now, as part of the integration the fences are going up again, on Hungary's southern and eastern border - because of the new obligation to keep foreigners out.

Most remarkable of all, the former Soviet republic of Estonia is now about to be part of the west European family once more.

Less than a decade ago its aspirations to independence from the Soviet Union were mocked or condemned in the West. Now, Estonia is set to be an equal partner with Luxembourg and the Netherlands, in just a few years' time. When the Commission gave little Estonia the thumbs-up, says one diplomat, "people in very senior positions couldn't believe it had happened".

Not everybody is enthusiastic. Traditionally, the British have been supportive of enlargement to the east - not least because it seemed a good way of diluting the EU itself. The French are afraid that the east Europeans will spoil the elegant European symmetry. Greece, Spain and Portugal fear enlargement will take away funds which by rights they should receive. The Germans are arguing for both an enlarged and a strengthened Union though in closed-door sessions, they are unenthusiastic about the prospect of east European produce swamping the German market.

A conference in London today includes the winners and losers alike. Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania and Slovakia (verdict: "not yet") must grin and bear it, and hope for better luck next time. Then, at the end of this month, comes Winners' Day: the beginning of official negotiations for membership for the lucky ones.

"We know we must eat a tough crust," is one typical east European comment. "But, after 40 years of Communism, we have to make up for lost time."