Germany pushes cause of eastern neighbours

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The Independent Online
GERMANY launched its chairmanship of the European Union yesterday with a call to bring Central and Eastern Europe into the fold. But it was made clear by both the European Commission and other member states of the Union that before new entrants come in, there will have to be sweeping reforms of the EU's rules.

'This is a vital issue for Europe,' the German Foreign Minister, Klaus Kinkel, told a foreign ministers' meeting in Brussels yesterday. A paper submitted by the European Commission lays out the first elements of a 'pre-accession strategy' - ways of bringing the eastern states closer to the EU before they join formally.

This would include allowing them in to more of the EU's meetings, closing the gaps between their legal systems, and retargeting existing aid. Germany wants to set out a more precise plan at the summit to be held in Essen in December.

Speaking in Bonn yesterday, Chancellor Helmut Kohl said he wanted Central and Eastern European leaders to attend EU summit meetings as the first step on their way into the European Union. The Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, said that creating links with Central and Eastern Europe is also high on London's agenda. Nato's Partnership for Peace scheme, Anglo-Italian plans to invite ministers from the east to foreign affairs and interior ministers' meetings, and new trade openings would all help tie these countries more firmly to the West.

The British government believes that bringing the eastern countries into the EU in the next five or six years is a priority. However, though the EU has moved a long way in opening up to the states to its east, it is evident that the prospect of letting them in still raises hackles among existing members. France's Minister for European Affairs, Alain Lamassoure, cautioned that the EU could only admit new members when the institutional consequences had been dealt with. In 1996 the EU is due to rethink its rule-book in a follow-up to the Maastricht treaty, and some members will want thorough-going reforms as the cost of admitting new entrants.

The Commission paper warns that the EU's capacity to absorb new members 'will depend on the decisions to be taken on institutional questions by the 1996 intergovernmental conference'.

Tensions between existing members and new states are also creating problems for the EU's attempts to build a strategy for Central and Eastern Europe. Yesterday foreign ministers tried to persuade Greece to lift its sanctions against the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, which they believe are hampering peace efforts. And Italy has raised questions over its borders with Slovenia, complicating efforts to build new links with the first republic to leave the Yugoslav federation.

The European Union already has association agreements with six countries - Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania and Bulgaria. These hold out the prospect of eventual membership of the EU. It has also negotiated free-trade agreements with the three Baltic states, which were signed yesterday, and is now committed to starting initial talks on association agreements with them as well.