Chirac promises Hungary a Western millennium

Central European hopes for early membership of Nato and the European Union received a boost yesterday when the French President, Jacques Chirac, told Hungarian leaders that he would give their applications his "unqualified support".

"France supports Hungary becoming a European Union member in 2000 and its application to join Nato," Mr Chirac told the Budapest parliament, adding that Hungary was on course to be invited to join Nato accession talks following the summit of alliance leaders in Madrid next July.

He also congratulated the country on concluding friendship treaties with neighbouring Slovakia and Romania, both of which have large ethnic Hungarian populations, thus easing the potential for regional conflict.

Mr Chirac's words of encouragement form part of a concerted French attempt to champion the cause of speedy Nato expansion into central Europe and the parallel process of EU enlargement.

Although he did not name a date for the former, he delighted his audience yesterday by reiterating his belief - first expressed in an address to the Polish parliament last September - that 2000 would be a realistic date for their entry into the EU, despite widespread doubts that it could be achieved so fast.

The French President's unilateral promise to admit Hungary to the EU within three years is utterly unrealistic and hugely unhelpful, according to EU officials. A similar promise on Nato membership would be far more reasonable: 2000 is already the semi-formal target date for enlargement of the Western alliance to the East.

But formal negotiations on extending the EU to former Communist countries cannot begin until the end 1997. It is agreed the talks will begin six months after internal negotiations on reform are completed, which will be June at the earliest.

This would leave at most two years to complete the largest and most complex enlargement in the history of the EU. Negotiations with Spain and Portugal took seven years.

Besides, it is accepted by all parties that the eastern expansion cannot happen without a radical reform of existing farm policy, or an enlargement of the Brussels budget, or probably both. France, for one, will drag its feet on farm policy; Germany, the main European budget contributor, insists that it can pay no more. Beyond that, EU Commission officials say, it is far from clear that Hungary and the other likely eastern contenders - Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovenia - will be ready for full membership within three years. A more likely time-scale would be 2003 to 2005.

The French President's motives for making such a clear commitment to an early date is unclear. In part, he had no choice. He gave the same promise to Poland last year and could do no less in Budapest. It is also typical of him to make popular gestures when abroad. French officials admit that the date may be unrealistic but say it is the renewed commitment to enlargement which counts.

Alongside his Foreign Minister, Herve de Charette, Mr Chirac's party in Budapest included a host of French business executives, all anxious to explore the possibilities in one of the countries that has best managed the transition to the free market.

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