East pushes for tighter integration with EU: Hungary and Poland look for a shorter route to heart of Europe

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THE European Union must do much more to integrate Central and Eastern Europe, the foreign ministers of Hungary and Poland said yesterday. Hungary has already set the ball rolling for a new stage in relations by announcing its intention to make a formal membership application. Poland yesterday said it, too, would apply.

The foreign ministers of Hungary and Poland, Geza Jeszenszky and Andrzej Olechowski, met their EU counterparts in the first meetings under the aegis of their association agreements. They will be joined by the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania and Bulgaria today for further meetings. All six have association agreements with the EU, which hold out the promise of eventual membership.

Hungary wants greater access to EU funds before membership, Mr Jeszenszky said yesterday. It also wants tighter links with the Western European Union, the EU's putative defence arm, and more representation in other European policy- making areas. He said he foresaw membership of the EU by 2000. British officials say that 2000 or 2002 are being considered as entry dates.

Jacques Delors, President of the European Commission, has said the idea of a wider Europe must be considered, in speeches in Brussels last month and in Budapest last week, and the Commission is already gearing up for a new initiative. Special seminars on 23 March and 6 April will consider relations with Central and Eastern Europe and Russia; so will an informal meeting of foreign ministers in Greece. These meetings will set the scene for a far-reaching re-examination of EU policies on everything from agriculture to regional aid.

Some member states are starting to accelerate action, with Germany taking the lead. Bonn will assume the presidency of the European Union in July and is expected to push ahead. Britain is also favourable to closer ties, and with Italy has produced an initiative to integrate Central and East European countries into foreign policy-making structures. But the background against which these plans are set is one of growing frustration and anger in the east. 'There is an unhappiness born of disappointed expectations,' said an EU diplomat.

The trade deficits which each has with the European Union are a source of particular concern and were raised by the ministers yesterday. In particular, Hungary wants greater ease of access for its agricultural goods, Mr Jeszenszky said. His country sank into deficit with the EU in 1993 to the tune of pounds 600m after a 1992 surplus of pounds 400m.

Budapest is also concerned that cash promised for infrastructure projects under the EU's Phare project has not yet materialised, he added. Phare had been useful, but should now be translated into direct assistance for projects rather than help in setting up a market economy, he added. The Central European states want access to EU funds before membership to ease their accession, he said.

Political ties are similarly rocky. The European Union's attempt to hold a regional conference to defuse conflicts - the so-called Balladur plan - has caused ill-feeling and has been virtually rejected by some of the states supposed to take part. It is intended to draw up pacts on minorities and borders.

Hungary, with ethnic minorities in neighbouring states, backs the idea. But Poland, the Czech Republic, Romania and Bulgaria have all expressed severe doubts. Indeed some say it could be dangerous, re- opening questions over minorities and borders that have long been settled. 'We are the victim of a silly EU concept,' said a diplomat.

Some of the tension results from exaggerated expectations about how far and fast relations can go, diplomats say. For instance, a joint memorandum from Poland, Hungary and Slovakia suggested that the three countries should take part in the regular meetings of EU diplomats that shape the agenda, a privilege that is not extended even to countries such as Sweden, Finland and Austria that have negotiated membership. But frustration in the east is boosted by what these countries see as patronising, bureaucratic and selfish behaviour by the West. This covers everything from restrictions on farm exports to ill- judged attempts to educate East Europeans on the virtues of European integration.

In the past, those who support closer ties have harnessed this frustration for action and they may do so again. When resentment over the closing of EU agricultural markets exploded in 1993, for instance, it helped the Commission to push for a package of trade, economic and political measures that was agreed at the Copenhagen summit.