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

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