EU drives east towards a 'greater Europe': Delors describes ambitious campaign for more trade links and members

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The Independent Online
THE European Union has begun work on creating closer ties with Central and Eastern Europe, which will culminate in membership for some countries.

The President of the European Commission, Jacques Delors, said yesterday that one of the body's biggest tasks for the coming year would be to examine how to create a 'greater Europe' with wider membership. The Commission is already working on a new initiative to open up trade and political links with Central and Eastern Europe. And Britain and Italy have proposed to work more closely with these states on foreign policy and home affairs.

Mr Delors told journalists in his annual address yesterday that he would ask the Commission to start preparing for a 'grande Europe' beyond the enlargement to Scandinavia and Austria that is under way. 'It is not enough to say that we are enlarging by four and sending a friendly signal to Cyprus and Malta and to have more and more encouraging words for the Visegrad countries (Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary),' he said.

'Vienna, Budapest, Warsaw and other towns are just as much poles of European culture as Berlin, Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam and London,' said Mr Delors, who was in a more than usually philosphical mood. He departs from the Commission at the end of this year.

His impending departure may make it easier for him to help to initiate what will be a very difficult debate. Creating closer ties with central and eastern Europe will cause political problems for some EU countries since it will mean dropping remaining trade barriers in sensitive sectors. In the longer term it will mean re-examining virtually every EU policy, since many - such as regional funds and the Common Agriculture Policy - would simply be unsustainable if these countries were to be members.

In a speech in the Hague on Thursday, Sir Leon Brittan, the EU external trade commissioner, called for the countries of Central and Eastern Europe to be brought into the EU. 'The future of the European Union itself depends on integrating those countries into a stable and prosperous common future,' he said, calling the project 'the greatest single challenge facing us since the Common Market itself was created.'

Sir Leon is already preparing an initiative which is likely to be put forward in July. His staff have already begun preliminary work on ideas to open up trade to Central and Eastern Europe, following an initiative launched at last year's Copenhagen summit. This accelerated the EU's market-opening measures and said, for the first time, that associated countries to the east that wished to join were welcome to do so.

It is hoped that a new proposal to take this further can be put forward when Germany takes over the presidency of the EU in July. Bonn has expressed a special interest in the widening of the European Union and Nato, and Chancellor Helmut Kohl yesterday underlined the importance of this goal, saying that Germany's border with Poland could not remain Europe's eastern edge. 'Such a frontier would have catastrophic consequences,' he told a conference in Switzerland.

Work is also afoot to build closer political ties short of membership. Britain and Italy together put forward an initiative last month to build links between east and west on foreign and security policy and immigration and police matters, the new areas introduced by the Maastricht treaty. A more detailed proposal is likely to follow, for discussion in March or April, according to the Foreign Office, spelling out the areas where dialogue can be deepened.

Three factors are pushing the EU to open its markets to the east and consider enlargement, officials in Brussels say. Germany continues to push hard for such changes, and countries like Spain that once resisted are now more favourable. There is a fear that failure to act will intensify economic and political problems in central and eastern Europe, and spark a return to nationalism or Communism. And the disarray in Russia makes 'projecting stability' all the more crucial for both the EU and Nato, the officials said yesterday.