Queuing up to join the rest

As EU leaders gather in Turin tomorrow for the opening of the IGC, they will be joined, if not in body then in spirit, by their counterparts from central and eastern Europe.

For many people in the region, the conference is not opening a day too soon. Most would have preferred it to have got under way long ago. More than six years has passed since the people of central and eastern Europe overthrew Communism and tore down the Iron Curtain. Although they would have liked it earlier, they now hope they will be given a clear signal that their home is in the EU.

"At the very least we need to be made to feel quite sure that we once again belong somewhere and that there is a clear goal towards which we can aim," said Jan Carnogursky, a former prime minister of Slovakia and now leader of the opposition Christian Democrats. "After all the well- meaning words, we want to see something concrete: conditions and terms of membership, a timetable.''

Slovakia is one of 10 countries in the region pressing for membership of the EU and Nato, the twin goals symbolising their final integration with the West. Few Slovaks are familiar with what the terms of the debate in Turin are likely to be or what membership of either institution will mean, but they still want to join.

The same is true throughout the region. Although some of the euphoria of 1989 has dissipated, surveys show that more than 90 per cent of the people from the Baltics to the Balkans want to integrate with the West, believing that membership of the two organisations will bring prosperity, stability and security.

Having been kept waiting so long, the main hope for central and east Europeans is that the IGC will come up with clear guidelines on how the union will reform itself to allow it to expand. The main fear is that the conference might drag on inconclusively or, even worse, break up in disarray.

"The success of the enlargement is at stake here. The conference should not lose sight of how important that is," said Jan Kulakowski, Poland's ambassador to the EU. "If it fails,that could eliminate us from membership for years," said Georgi Gotev, first secretary of the Bulgarian EU mission.

The political stakes are high. The applicant states have undergone huge economic upheavals in the past six years and many have suffered in the process. Politically, there has been a backlash in favour of the reformed Communist parties that grew out of their hardline predecessors. But even the return of former Communists to power has not halted the shift from command to free-market economies.

In Hungary, an ex-Communist government last year brought in a tough austerity budget, slashing state subsidies and welfare payments in what was seen as a necessary part of getting the economy into shape to join the EU.

"If there were now a postponement of membership, if they start talking about sometime in the next century, we could lose this driving force [towards market reforms]," said Endre Juhasz, the Hungarian ambassador to the EU.

Another prospect that fills the would-be members with dread is that of a "multi-speed" Europe in which a hard core of nations led by France and Germany forges ahead with greater unity, leaving the rest behind in second or even third tiers. "We are interested in full integration," said Mr Juhasz. "Rights should be equal. We are not in favour of second-class membership. That would be very bad."

Although there are no official front-runners, Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic are widely believed to be the first wave within the next four to five years. Yet even those that will have to wait for longer insist that a western orientation remains their only viable option. That is being challenged by a more assertive, nationalistic government in Moscow.

The vote in the Russian Duma earlier this month annulling the dissolution of the old Soviet Union provoked outrage throughout its former satellite states in eastern Europe. Russia makes no bones about wanting to lure some of them back into the fold. While acknowledging that the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland are probably lost causes, Moscow has been wooing some of the others.

When the Russian defence minister, Yevgeny Primakov, visited Bratislava earlier this month, he offered Slovakia a deal: Russia would guarantee long-term economic supplies in exchange for Slovak neutrality.

The deal was promptly turned down, but it threw new light on Moscow's determination to salvage some of its old power and influence in the region, particularly in those countries like Slovakia, such as Romania, Bulgaria and the Baltic states, that are unlikely to join the first wave of EU and Nato expansion.

Slovakia is a good example of a country caught in a new "grey zone" between east and west. Some Slovaks, particularly the more nationalist, are already tempted by the Russian idea, although the majority are not. But if the IGC fails to deliver, that could change.

"Russia is the only country that could be an alternative centre of gravity for the region, but Russia is likely to be too weak for at least another 10 years to be a viable option," said Mr Carnogursky. "If after that time our position with regard to the EU is still unclear, then that could be another question."

ADRIAN BRIDGE

Life and Style
Small winemakers say the restriction makes it hard to sell overseas
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
News
Clare Balding
peopleClare Balding on how women's football is shaking up sport
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Sport
premier leagueMatch report: Arsenal 1 Man United 2
Arts and Entertainment
Kirk Cameron is begging his Facebook fans to give him positive reviews
film
News
i100
Sport
Jonny May scores for England
rugby unionEngland 28 Samoa 9: Wing scores twice to help England record their first win in six
Life and Style
fashionThe Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Jerry Hall (Hand out press photograph provided by jackstanley@theambassadors.com)
theatre
Sport
Tony Bellew (left) and Nathan Cleverly clash at the Echo Arena in Liverpool
boxingLate surge sees Liverpudlian move into world title contention
Voices
Neil Findlay
voicesThe vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
Life and Style
food + drinkMeat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Reach Volunteering: Financial Trustee and Company Secretary

Voluntary Only - Expenses Reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: A trustee (company d...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Project Manager

£45000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Shopfitter

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join a successful an...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Sales Account Manager

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Digital Sales Account Manager...

Day In a Page

Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

The last Christians in Iraq

After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Britain braced for Black Friday
Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

From America's dad to date-rape drugs

Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

Flogging vlogging

First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

US channels wage comedy star wars
When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible
Look what's mushrooming now! Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector

Look what's mushrooming now!

Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
Neil Findlay is more a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

More a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

The vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Tenderstem broccoli omelette; Fried eggs with Mexican-style tomato and chilli sauce; Pan-fried cavolo nero with soft-boiled egg

Oeuf quake

Bill Granger's cracking egg recipes
Terry Venables: Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back

Terry Venables column

Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back
Michael Calvin: Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Those at the top are allowing the same issues to go unchallenged, says Michael Calvin