Europe tries to contain warring passions: Diplomats seek blueprint for treaties with Eastern European countries QBY: LEONARD DOYLE, West Europe Editor

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The Independent Online
DIPLOMATS preparing for an ambitious peace conference aimed at preventing the outbreak of wars in Eastern Europe see the Anglo-Irish Agreement as a model for a possible solution.

Eastern Europe is riven with ethnic conflicts and border disputes that threaten to burst into violence. Worried that a Yugoslav-style conflict could erupt in the Baltic states, where there is a large Russian population, as well as in Slovakia and Romania, where there are discontented Hungarian minorities, the European Union is pressing ahead with plans for a 40-nation conference.

The Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 set up an inter-governmental conference giving Dublin a consultative role in Northern Ireland's affairs. Dublin can raise issues concerning the Catholic minority at conference and both sides are committed to make 'determined efforts' to resolve the problems. The result has been a marked improvement in co-operation between the two governments and joint efforts to end the conflict.

In the same way, the EU members hope to negotiate formal treaties or 'good neighbourly accords' between Eastern European countries that will defuse the growing ethnic tensions by preventive diplomatic action by governments and minority groups. The challenge, diplomats say, will be to accomplish this without fanning separatism among ethnic minorities or stirring up cross-border passions. The bilateral agreements will all be part of an overall 'stability pact' deposited with the United Nations.

With members in step on this foreign policy 'joint action' initiative which was agreed under the terms of the Maastricht treaty, the EU is determined to avoid a repeat of the havoc in the former Yugoslavia that followed Germany's rush to recognise Croatia and Bosnia, diplomats said. The hope is that they will maintain a united front when dealing with the explosive tensions caused by the ethnic patchwork throughout Eastern Europe.

So far, diplomats say all 12 EU members are acting in harmony in the newly minted 'all for one, one for all' foreign policy regime, in sharp contrast to the acrimony that marked the struggle for a common policy on the former Yugoslavia.

The nine countries lined up for the preventive diplomacy process include Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Romania, Slovakia, Bulgaria and the Baltic states, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Most are eager to participate and see the prospect of the 'stability pact' as a badly needed boost to their security. When the French Prime Minister, Eduard Balladur, first proposed the conference last June, it was seen as a stepping stone for East European countries hoping to join the EU.

EU diplomats now say that a successful conclusion to the conference will go on an applicant country's report card, but no more. Some countries, like Britain, are steadfastly opposed to giving any impression that the conference could pave the way for Eastern European countries to be brought under Nato or the Western European Union's security blanket.

The main cloud hanging over the conference is Russia's attitude to the prospect of holding legally binding negotiations with the Baltic states on the status of the large Russian minorities and the withdrawal of its troops. President Yeltsin's willingness to negotiate these issues with the entire cast of CSCE countries including the US and Canada looking on is not known with certainty.