The Poles and Hungarians are convinced that strategic changes in Europe over the last three years have increased the urgency of integrating their countries into Western economic and security institutions. With Russia pursuing a more assertive foreign policy, Ukraine descending into instability and south- eastern Europe torn by war and ethnic tensions, Poland and Hungary believe they must join the Western camp before the chance is lost.
Poland's Foreign Minister, Andrzej Olechowski, cautioned in Warsaw yesterday that negotiating the terms of EU membership would not be simple. 'The road to the Union will be long, hard and uncertain,' he said, adding that full membership might not happen before the year 2000.
The Czech Republic and Slovakia are also keen to join the EU, but have refrained from submitting formal requests. Czech politicians are doubtful about the wisdom of trying to co-ordinate the entry of the four Central European countries into Western institutions, since each has its special economic characteristics and security challenges.
EU governments do not wish to be seen as giving preferential treatment to any one state, but some Central European politicians fear this disguises a lack of EU resolve to embrace the new democracies. President Lech Walesa of Poland told a Russian newspaper last month that the West had offered Poland little but promises and did not understand his part of the world.
Britain has been among the foremost advocates of EU membership for the Central Europeans, but to some extent this reflects the Government's belief that the more countries that join the EU the more remote is the prospect of centralised administration from Brussels. Other countries, such as Germany, have an interest in expanding the EU to diminish the risk of instability being imported from the East.
Earlier this year, the Central Europeans joined Nato's 'Partnership for Peace' programme, which offers a degree of military co-operation with the West. However, the Central Europeans are concerned the initiative does not include explicit security guarantees.Reuse content