EU grapples with expansion to the east: Andrew Marshall in Usedom reports on an old debate renewed

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IT TOOK only an hour to walk from the place where European foreign ministers were gathered on Saturday to the Polish border. There is barbed wire on the beach, a watch-tower poking out from the woods and a few signs stuck in the sand warning that you are about to step into a different country.

The reason for the German government's choice of the island of Usedom as the venue for the weekend's informal meeting of foreign ministers was obvious. Until 1990, the island was in East Germany: now it is incorporated in the Federal Republic of Germany, in the European Union. But the edge of the EU starts only a few miles down the road. The key topic on the agenda was how to deal with the states on the other side of that barbed-wire fence.

Klaus Kinkel, the German Foreign Minister, announced that there will be regular six- monthly meetings between the EU and the Central and Eastern European states, covering all issues. A policy paper on further moves to aid integration has been put together by the European Commission, and the German government will submit more plans to the European summit in Essen in December.

But that sort of initiative is not enough. Membership is on the cards by the end of the century, and that has implications for the EU. In 1996 the EU states meet to rewrite their rules, but the debate has already started.

The smoke has started to clear since the German Christian Democrats (CDU) released their plans for a hard core of states. It created a fuss, mainly because Germany is the key player in this, not only because it is the EU's largest country but because it is the paymaster, because it borders Central Europe and because it has the most problems over monetary union.

But it was evident after the ministers' discussions that there is no agreement within any party, government or nation, about the next steps. Mr Kinkel began yesterday's debate about integration by saying several 'nichts' (or 'nots') about the paper recently produced by the CDU, according to British sources. Mr Kinkel is a member of the Free Democratic Party, which is in coalition with the CDU, but he said the document represented neither coalition ideas nor party ideas, nor a national position.

The British position in this complex situation is not as unpromising as it might seem. 'Let a thousand flowers bloom,' said a senior British source yesterday, of the flood of ideas. 'Some of them will be weeds, but that will be sorted out at harvest time.'

Britain believes four crucial sets of decisions will converge in the next 18 months: the 1996 negotiations, a single currency, expensive EU policies like the Common Agricultural Policy, and defence will all have to be rethought at the same time. European security is going through its most fundamental rethink in 50 years. This week, troops from Britain and the US will be just down the road in Poland for the first Partnership for Peace exercise, 'Co-Operative Bridge'.

The Government accepts that the entry of Central and Eastern European nations implies substantial reform of the EU is on the cards, and British officials say Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, is pleased that the debate has now surfaced.