The leading candidates for early membership of Nato and the EU are considered to be the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovenia. However, Nato and the EU intend to wait until next year before making public the names of the countries that will be invited to start membership negotiations.
The disclosure that Nato aims to accept new members in 1999 was made in London this week by Robert Hunter, the US ambassador at Nato's Brussels headquarters.
Addressing the Royal United Services Institute, he said Nato would hold a summit in late spring or early summer next year at which invitations would be issued to certain Central and East European countries. He anticipated that these countries would become full members of Nato on or before the 50th anniversary of the alliance's foundation. The anniversary falls on 4 April, 1999.
Meanwhile, President Jacques Chirac of France said in Warsaw yesterday that he hoped Poland would join the EU by 2000. Although Chancellor Helmut Kohl of Germany and other EU leaders have mentioned this date in the past, the fact that Mr Chirac did so in a speech to both houses of the Polish parliament invested it with a special significance.
Jacques Santer, President of the European Commission, said in Prague in April that accession negotiations for prospective EU member-states could be completed by 2000 "if everyone worked as hard as the Czechs to become EU members". The EU aims to start accession talks about six months after the end of its current Inter-Governmental Conference, which seems likely to end in mid-1997.
For an entry date of 2000 to be realistic, the terms of admission for the new members will have to include special arrangements to soften the impact of full-blown competition on vulnerable industrial and agricultural sectors. This is likely to mean a lengthy transition before the Central and East European states are fully integrated into the single market.
Although the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland have made substantial economic progress since 1989, they are much less wealthy than Greece, Portugal and Spain when they joined the EU in the 1980s. However, Slovenia, which seceded from former Yugoslavia in 1991, is more prosperous and has the highest standard of living and per capita Gross National Product in Central Europe. For some politicians in the former Soviet-dominated half of Europe, Nato membership is an even bigger prize than admission to the EU, since it would provide a cast-iron security guarantee in an alliance led by the United States. But governments in the region have expressed fears in recent years that Nato might not take them under its wing for fear of rupturing relations with Russia.
President Boris Yeltsin and almost all Russian politicians and military commanders continue to oppose Nato's expansion in public. However, some now seem privately reconciled to a limited enlargement of the alliance provided that Nato does not turn Central Europe into a "forward base" with Russia as the target.
Nato aims to solve its Russia problem by signing a charter with Moscow that would set out the terms of a uniquely close and co-operative relationship. However, Nato officials stress that this would not offer Russia a security condominium over Central and East Europe, and that all countries which join Nato will have exactly the same security guarantees, including the US nuclear umbrella, as the present 16 members.
The Czechs, Hungarians, Poles and Slovenians are prominent candidates for Nato entry partly because they meet, or are close to meeting, essential conditions for membership set out by Nato last year.
These include internal democracy, civilian control of the armed forces and a lack of territorial and other disputes with neighbours.
Significantly, Hungary and Romania are to sign a treaty on Monday designed to bury their differences over issues such as the status of ethnic Hungarians in Romania.
The treaty should remove the last important obstacle to Hungary's membership, but few expect Romania to be among the first new Nato entrants.
The fact that some countries will join Nato and the EU earlier than others is causing considerable dismay and even alarm among those likely to be left out. This is especially true for the three Baltic states, which live in fear of a Russian move against their newly acquired independence. "It's not so easy to sleep next to elephants," said Latvia's Foreign Minister, Valdis Birkavs.Reuse content