German plan to reach out to Central Europe triggers row with EU partners

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THE European Union faltered yesterday, after making a fresh attempt to reach out to the states of Central Europe. Foreign ministers meeting in Luxembourg agreed to draw up a new plan, paralleling the single market programme, that would expand economic and commercial ties with Central Europe.

On practical work like this, the EU's Commission is working away and making progress. But on more political questions, policy seems becalmed by disagreements among the member states.

Germany, which holds the presidency of the EU, put forward a paper to set up joint meetings between EU ministers and their counterparts in six Central European countries - Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania and Bulgaria.

All have 'Association Agreements', which put them on track for EU membership one day; the first two have already applied.

These meetings would parallel the EU's Council of Ministers and would be held once or twice a year. They would cover foreign and internal affairs, as well as the environment, the economy, agriculture and transport.

Although the proposal had not been agreed, two such meetings have already been held. One, covering drugs and organised crime, was held in Berlin in early September, although it achieved little. But, Germany claims that its paper will advance relations with Central Europe.

The paper was agreed - in principle. But five EU states, including France, Spain and Belgium, raised concerns over taking even this step, officials and diplomats said. They objected to regular meetings, and they said that it must be made clear that no decisions can be made at them.

The fact that the EU has only just got round to agreeing this idea is a measure of the lack of pace and direction in policy. There is increasing evidence of deep uncertainties in EU policy towards Central Europe. Only Germany appears enthusiastic.

Southern states fear that the focus on Eastern Europe will shift the balance of the EU. They are unwilling to see present membership diluted and they do not see the point of symbolic gestures.

The policy of France, the other most influential EU member, is unlikely to be clarified until after the presidential election in 1995. Officials say that no list of new membership candidates, or a date for joining, will emerge before 1996, when the EU considers undertaking post-Maastricht reforms. The problems in admitting new members range from new decision-making rules to a the total reform of agricultural policy.

There remain question-marks over which Central Europeans can join. Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary are top of the list. Slovakia has shifted away from this group. There are disagreements about Bulgaria and Romania. A row between Italy and Slovenia is slowing new links. Greece is obstructing ties with Albania.

The biggest question mark hangs over relations with the Baltic states. Officials say that the chances of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia even getting Association Agreements in the short term are diminishing.

This is because these treaties imply EU membership, which in turn implies a link to a US nuclear security guarantee. This might upset Moscow. Policy is shifting towards allowing Russia more leeway on its borders, and away from bringing the Baltics into Western institutions, officials say.