Inside File: Winners and losers in the European league of nations

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THE trouble with the league table of European nations is that some of them occasionally forget their place. Let us be under no illusions: the premier league for the moment numbers 12 - soon to be 16 if the people of Austria, Finland, Sweden and Norway vote in favour of entry to the European Union in referenda this year. Looking at potential entrants from Eastern Europe, the first division has four teams only - the members of the so-called Visegrad group: Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia (though the latter risked relegation last year until the ousting of its pugnacious prime minister, Vladimir Meciar).

Within the first division, two members might argue that they are in line for promotion to the premier league before others: the Czechs because they are not big exporters of foodstuffs and would not add to the permanent war over EU agricultural policy, and because their economic output has led them to suggest they might even be net contributors to the Union; Poland because of its sheer size and long border with Germany and, like the Czechs, the absence of a minority problem.

The second division might be said to include Romania and Bulgaria, which have never been rated with the Visegrads - the first because of lingering misgivings over the quality of its democracy, the second, perhaps unfairly, because of its uncomfortable proximity to the former Yugoslavia and historical legacy of Balkan conflict.

Then there are the countries which may belong in a division lower still: the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia are a case in point. Estonia, while the most successful economically of the three, has the biggest problem with the remaining Russian minority. Russians and other non-Estonians make up almost 40 per cent of the population. Moscow complains that the Russians are ill-treated by the Estonians. Estonia complains that Russia keeps postponing the withdrawal of its 'pensioned' servicemen from Estonian soil.

Lithuania, on the other hand, has solved much of the problem with its Polish minority, and might therefore conceivably deserve promotion to the second division. But since the world treats its parts in blocs rather than individual countries, such a move is inconceivable. The case of the former Yugoslav republics is another example of that pattern; Slovenia arguably deserves promotion to the first division, but the outside world has not got its head around the idea of separating it from the rest of the former Yugoslavia. Slovenia's problem has also been compounded by Italy's new right- wing government blocking its entry to the first division because of a dispute over property in the border regions.

Estonia harbours hopes that a major European power will intervene in earnest on its behalf. That, too is inconceivable. As one Western diplomat put it: 'I wouldn't stake my credibility on taking on Moscow over the fate of 900,000 Estonians. It is the Central European states that matter, first and foremost.'

The Estonians have requested an outside mediator in the form of Hans-Dietrich Genscher, the former German foreign minister. On what mandate he would be mediating is unclear. At any rate, as one diplomat noted: 'To have a mediation you need at least two parties to mediate between. And Moscow doesn't feel there is anything to mediate about.' Bringing in Mr Genscher might also be a mistake; as one Western official said: 'Genscher never understood the Russians. He could never understand that things have changed since the end of the Soviet Union.'

The West is instead advising Estonia to place itself firmly in the Nordic fold, and look in particular to the Swedes for regional protection. The most vocal champion of Baltic rights in recent years has indeed been Carl Bildt, the Swedish Prime Minister.

Diplomats cite the precedent of Finland. A Finnish official recalled how, between the wars, Finland sought to rely on the protection of France and Britain through the League of Nations. 'It got us nowhere. We were encouraged, especially by the British, to create a Nordic identity instead of trying to be all over the place, and to rely in particular on the Swedes. We did, and it worked.'

The Estonians' problem is that they are refusing to be that realistic. They may be imagining they are already playing in the first division. The fact is they remain in the same league as Albania, which for reasons never made clear publicly, the world has consigned permanently to division three.