Central Europe lines up to board the Brussels bandwagon

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THE FIRST elements of a plan for bringing Central Europe into the European Union will emerge this week, even while the rows over its current enlargement are unresolved.

The European Commission is holding a seminar on Wednesday that will start a policy rethink. Finance ministers will touch on the issue today, and foreign ministers are likely to discuss it when they meet in Greece this weekend.

The Commission seminar is an opportunity for Commissioners to air their views about new directions for EU policy and is only the start of what is likely to be a lengthy and painful debate. Hans van den Broek, Commissioner for external political affairs, said last week that the EU needed to lay down a 'pre-accession' strategy for bringing Central and Eastern Europe closer before they became members. Jacques Delors, the President of the Commission, has committed himself to the goal of a 'wider Europe'.

Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania and Bulgaria all have association agreements with the EU, which will lead in time to membership. Slovenia is likely to join them. But the question of when has not been resolved, and now the Central European countries are pushing the pace. Budapest will submit its application for membership in early April; the document will include a rough calculation of the funds required to assist Hungary's integration. Poland is also intending to submit a membership application.

This is against the background of falling support for European integration in Central Europe. The number of people holding a positive image of the EU in Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic has fallen by 9, 15, and 12 per cent since 1990, according to an opinion poll carried out by the Commission's polling agency, Eurobarometer, released last week.

Top of the list of EU plans is likely to be new financial help and a re-targeting of existing cash. The EU's assistance programme for Central and Eastern Europe, Phare, is likely to be reshaped to offer funds for infrastruture projects rather than technical help, its current objective.

Politically, the EU is likely to put the accent on bringing Central and Eastern European representatives into closer contact with their Western counterparts on foreign policy and in sensitive areas such as immigration and drugs.

But there is concern in some EU countries, notably France, that the pace on Eastern Europe is being pushed too hard, especially by Germany. Bonn is the foremost supporter of bringing in new countries.

France is worried about the eastward shift of the EU's centre of gravity. Spain, too, is worried about this drift. Britain is keen to see further enlargement, but is concerned about the possible institutional consequences, diplomats say. If the rules for voting were changed in the usual way, then Britain, Germany and France together could not veto large areas of EU legislation.