Community opts for expansion in two stages: Twelve could become more than twenty, Sarah Lambert writes from Copenhagen

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The Independent Online
THE 12 nations of the European Community yesterday publicly committed themselves to expanding to 16 by 1995 and to more than 20 at some future date, in the meantime offering East European aspirants political involvement in the EC and, for the first time, far freer trading terms.

In the first wave, EC heads of government at the Copenhagen summit yesterday confirmed their intention to see Norway, Finland, Sweden and Austria join the Community by 1 January 1995.

This implies that the negotiations, which got off to a slow start, must be completed by the end of this year, so that governments can press ahead with ratification.

The process could prove difficult, since there is only wobbly public support for EC membership in many of the states which are legally compelled to put the issue to a referendum.

To complete negotiations for four countries in six months is a tall order, given that there are complicated issues still to be settled such as neutrality, concessions to Arctic farmers and - not least - the membership fee.

Enlarging the Community to take in Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania and Bulgaria was, said John Major yesterday, 'a very long way into the future'. It will require fundamental changes to Community institutions of such political consequence that member states are, for the moment, happy to put off any debate.

But for the first time the EC made a formal promise that the six, all of which already have 'association agreements' with the Community, should, if they 'so desired, become members of the European union' once they had met five conditions. These relate to the establishment of a stable democracy, a market economy capable of coping with competition, rule of law, human rights and protection of minorities.

The EC has promised to help the six separately towards this goal, setting up institutional frameworks, training lawyers and managers and providing some extra money for infrastructure projects that cannot be funded any other way.

Regular consultative mini-summits will be held twice a year - in the same way as the EC now works with the US - and East European diplomats will be regularly updated on EC decision-making.

Under the political gloss is the true meat of the summit: a commitment to open EC markets to East European goods.

Customs duties on some products such as cars and chemicals will be phased out over a shorter period than previously envisaged - typically two years earlier, although the time-scale for the most 'sensitive' products - textiles and steel - is five and four years respectively.

Plans to increase exports of agricultural produce from the East will be speeded up and the tariffs to which they are subject will be halved.

The EC did, however, balk at weakening unduly the system of quotas that East European states complain constitute the highest barriers to trade.

Though these have been scaled back somewhat, the East still believes more could have been done.

The Community has struggled to find a formula to bring Russia into the EC fold through a partnership agreement that would reward the reform process and help to shore up Boris Yeltsin's powerbase. But brokering a realistic deal, the summit participants said yesterday, is likely to take at least until the end of the year.

The push east included commitments to work more closely with Ukraine and the Baltic republics balanced, on the insistence of the EC's southern members, which fear a shift north and east in the Community's priorities, with a promise to improve relations with the Maghreb.

Meanwhile, Malta, Cyprus and Turkey are waiting for news on when and whether the EC might expand to include them, too.