New phase for EU as Hungary asks to join

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The Independent Online
HUNGARY yesterday presented its formal application to join the European Union, almost five years after it became the first East European country to open its borders to the West.

The request was made to the Greek government in Athens. Greece holds the presidency of the EU council of ministers. The application marks the culmination of Budapest's foreign policy goals since 1989, and will herald the start of a decisive new phase in the closer integration of Eastern and Western Europe. Within a few weeks, Poland is likely to present its application. Following closely behind will be the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

In Central Europe, it is hoped the simple act of application will create an irreversible momentum. Nobody believes membership will be granted overnight; sights have been set on the year 2000.

In Brussels, however, there are mixed feelings about the would-be newcomers. With bruises from the battle over next year's entry of Sweden, Finland, Norway and Austria still smarting, few relish the prospect of possibly even greater rows over further enlargement. Moreover, although most member states would welcome the political expansion of the union eastwards, many fear that the economic cost will prove too great.

Preliminary studies circulating in Brussels indicate that the Common Agricultural Policy could not be maintained in its current form without vast new funding if the EU were to admit significant producing countries of the size of Poland and Hungary. The programme for regional funding, likewise, could not be applied to the newcomers unless existing members agreed to up their contributions considerably.

According to some observers in Brussels, the more member states look at the small print, the less they are going to like what they see. At the same time, however, there is a growing recognition that the Central and Eastern European countries - and, in the eyes of some, even the Baltic states - cannot be left outside the EU indefinitely.

'The Baltic Sea is just as much a European one as the Mediterranean,' declared Chancellor Helmut Kohl of Germany earlier this month. 'It is quite simply intolerable for us to adopt the attitude that we want to create some sort of closed shop.'

Over the past few weeks, Germany has emerged as the main champion of further enlargement to the east, and has signalled it intends to make the development of a more coherent ostpolitik one of the prime objectives of its six- month tenure of the EU presidency beginning on 1 July.

Apart from gratitude to the East Europeans for toppling Communism in 1989 and paving the way for German unification one year later, Bonn is keenly motivated by self-interest: the last thing it wants is for its border with Poland to remain the EU's eastern border.

In addition to clear statements of support, the German government wants to see concrete steps taken to involve the four leading new applicants - Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia - more closely in EU decisions.

To the Central Europeans, who in addition to interim measures are also calling for greater financial aid from the EU and access to its markets, such strong support from the largest and most powerful of the member states has come as music to the ears.

'We are very happy to have the Germans on our side,' said a Foreign Ministry official in Warsaw. 'And we are also very relieved that agreement was reached over the admission of Austria and the Scandinavians. That has paved the way for us. And, hopefully, next time the question of enlargement comes up, some important lessons will already have been learnt.'