Eastern Europe nations knock insistently on EC's door: A Community summit will decide on opening the way to closer ties, writes Tony Barber

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The Independent Online
EASTERN European countries hope next month's European Community summit in Copenhagen will endorse proposals to integrate them more closely into the EC so that they can become full members by the end of the century. However, their optimism is tempered by concern that it may prove harder to fulfil their other main ambition: to join Nato.

The summit, which will bring together EC heads of state and government, is expected to discuss an initiative by the European Commission, the EC's executive arm, to relax terms of trade for Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Bulgaria and Romania. Poland alone says it could boost its exports by several hundred million dollars annually if the summit approves the plan.

The Commission has also proposed that the EC show 'a clear commitment to eventual membership' for the six states. The initiative, already endorsed by EC foreign ministers, does not suggest a specific date for starting negotiations on EC membership, but it has reduced some of the tensions that have recently surrounded the Community's relations with Eastern Europe.

The former Communist countries felt that the EC was so preoccupied with other problems, such as ratifying the Maastricht treaty, operating the Single Market and incorporating Austria, Sweden and Finland, that it had lost interest in Eastern Europe. They also believed that powerful EC economic lobbies were leaning on governments to deny the Eastern Europeans fair access to EC markets.

'The Community should not devote all of its attention to the undoubtedly important, but at the same time so narrow, problems of the Single Market,' Poland's Prime Minister, Hanna Suchocka, said in Strasbourg on 13 May. 'If it turns its back on its neighbours, this attitude must eventually backfire and affect unfavourably the Community itself . . . The restrictive trade policy that we face, a policy that is being implemented under a veil of diverse excuses, is doing tangible harm to our countries and undermines confidence in the Community's good intentions.'

The Eastern Europeans have the sympathy of Sir Leon Brittan, the EC Commissioner for External Relations, who said in Copenhagen last month that Western European countries must not use their recessions as an excuse to keep their markets closed. 'This approach is as disloyal to our eastern partners as it is to the facts,' he said, pointing out that the EC's exports to Eastern Europe had grown by 24 per cent in the last three years.

More trade tensions flared when the EC suspended imports of Eastern European meat and dairy products because of an outbreak of cattle disease. The Eastern Europeans, who imposed reciprocal bans, were angry because they believed that the disease had emerged in a Balkan area outside their region. They suspected the EC farm lobby of trying to defend its producers against Eastern European competition, just as EC manufacturers of steel, textiles and cars have sought protection.

Even if the Copenhagen summit turns out well for the Eastern Europeans, their desire to join Nato remains a thorny problem. Germany's Defence Minister, Volker Ruhe, told a meeting in Berlin last week that, for Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, Nato membership 'is not a question of whether, but how and when'.

However, other Western officials are anxious not to upset Russia and would prefer looser security ties. Russian officials told the meeting that they opposed the eastward expansion of Nato, saying they did not want a cordon sanitaire thrown around Russia.