An eastern foursome goes west

A race to join the EU and Nato has split the Visegrad states, writes Tony Barber

The Visegrad Group, a loose alliance of four central European states, is lapsing into irrelevance as each country competes with its neighbours to join the European Union and Nato. Diplomats say co-operation among Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia is at such a low ebb that the group could be wound up almost without anyone noticing.

"From the beginning it was only an informal group, but these days no one really thinks of being part of a foursome at all," one central European envoy said.

When Hungary, Poland and the former Czechoslovakia set up the group in February 1991, they hoped to work together on political, economic and security issues with the aim of joining the EU and Nato. Increasingly, it has become a case of everyone for himself.

The reason lies partly in the rivalry among the four to join Western institutions. All fear the resurgence of Russia's imperial ambitions, and each, with the possible exception of Slovakia, wants to be first in the queue at the West's door.

But the Visegrad Group's decline also reflects the West's response to the issues raised by the fall of Communism. Whereas once the EU regarded the Visegrad four as leading candidates for membership, now it has bracketed them with other former Communist states, notably Bulgaria, Romania, Slovenia, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

The EU and Nato have refused to set a target date for central European membership. EU accession negotiations are not likely to start until after the end of next year's Intergovernmental Conference (IGC) on reviewing the Maastricht treaty, in 1997. When the EU recently published a White Book, listing the domestic reforms needed in central and eastern European states to qualify for EU membership, Poles joked that it should be called the "Wait Book".

Officials from Nato countries liked to say last year that central European admission was "not a question of if, but when".

The US and European governments now ask if it may be wiser to hold back until Nato has a more stable relationship with Russia, which opposes the alliance's expansion. The effect on the Visegrad countries has been to undermine their incentive to work together.

The Czechs, Hungarians and Poles are jostling for the EU to let them in first. The Czech Prime Minister, Vaclav Klaus, argues that Prague already has a more sophisticated economy than some EU members, such as Greece and Portugal. Czech officials trumpet their market reforms as far superior to those of Hungary and Poland and suggest their country would be a net contributor to the EU budget.

Hungary's Prime Minister, Gyula Horn, said in Brussels last February: "Nowhere else in eastern Europe is the process of transformation as comprehensive as in our country." Budapest says Hungary has attracted about pounds 5bn in direct foreign investment since 1989, about half the total reaching eastern Europe in that time.

Poland's case, put forward last month by the Foreign Minister, Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, is that its position between Germany and the former Soviet Union means it deserves special treatment.

As for Slovakia, the slow pace of reform since 1993 has become even more sluggish since the re-election last year of Vladimir Meciar, the populist Prime Minister. Slovakia has applied to join the EU. But Mr Meciar has entangled his country in a dispute with Germany, while the issue of discrimination against the Hungarian minority has re-emerged since Mr Meciar's return to power.

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