Hungary prepares bid to join Twelve

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The Independent Online
HUNGARY is preparing the ground for a formal application to join the European Union, with the hope of attaining membership by the end of the decade, according to Hungarian diplomats in Brussels.

Membership negotiations with central and eastern Europe would open up a huge range of questions about every aspect of the EU's existence. They would also spark rows between those who want much greater integration and those who see the future in extension of Western institutions to the east. The Twelve are already facing tense negotiations over the entry of Austria and the Scandinavian countries, which are richer and hence present fewer problems.

A request is likely to be submitted early next month, diplomats said yesterday, perhaps at a meeting of foreign ministers. Hungary would be the first country from central and eastern Europe to take the step, though others, including Poland and the Czech Republic, are likely to follow.

Budapest does not anticipate negotiations beginning until after 1996, with membership set for 1999 or 2000. But it wants the issue raised now, partly so that it can be taken account of in Maastricht-style negotiations set to take place that year, partly so that the standard Commission entry procedures can begin quickly.

Diplomats from EU countries say that the 1996 inter-governmental conference is likely to be heavily influenced by the desire of central and eastern Europeans to join and the knowledge that a political decision cannot long be delayed. Some states, especially those that may lose status with new entrants, such as the poorer southern states, will resist further enlargement.

Others will insist that if new members are to be admitted, then there must be an acceleration of political integration, to create a more federal system. Entry is by no means guaranteed, though the prospect of membership has been held out by the EU in statements made at a summit last year and in bilateral agreements.

A timetable for new entrants could be decided later this year. In order to ease the transition, the Commission may propose a new assistance fund for central and eastern Europe.