A betrayal that will return to haunt the West: Writers from both sides of the old Iron Curtain argue that Western Europe has failed the moral and political test of post-Communism

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WESTERN diplomats recently let it be known that the states of Central Europe will not be admitted into Nato. We will be encouraged instead to seek membership of the European Union. The idea is almost Marxist: economic integration as the base on which the superstructure might eventually grow. Rather than fostering European stability, however, this decision may fatally weaken elites in the east who support capitalism and democracy.

The decision of the Western security establishment to spurn our advances looks, on the surface, hard-headed but sensible. As Lord Carrington, the former secretary-general of Nato, put it recently, the enlargement of the alliance would be a bad idea: 'First, this would lead to considerable disquiet by the Russians . . . Second, a number of the existing Nato members would not be very happy to guarantee the so-called integrity of Poland and some of the other countries.' The 'so- called' in that sentence is particularly intriguing. According to this logic, the coming Nato summit may offer Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia (the four serious candidates for membership) some low-grade Western equipment and the chance to fool around at occasional joint manoeuvres - but not much hope of a security guarantee.

When told of the emerging Nato consensus, President Yeltsin was reported to be 'thrilled'. In the countries concerned, however, it is producing a massive sense of betrayal. Many here simply do not believe the West any more, and suspect that promises of European Union membership are lightly made. When the EU comes to debate Central European membership a few years hence, Lord Carrington's two objections will apply with even greater force. Russia will again protest against being excluded and nobody will point out (as they fail to now) that a democratic, peace-loving Russia ought to welcome the opportunity to share a border with a member of a club she aspires to join, much as Poland welcomed the unification of Germany.

Other EU members will also oppose our accession even more vigorously than they now oppose our Nato aspirations. And it will not be future contingencies that are at stake, but fundamental economic interests. Will the EU's poorer countries, Greece, Portugal or Ireland, risk diluting 'cohesion' funds at their expense? Will France sacrifice support for her inefficient peasants to help Poland's inefficient peasants? Will Europe's 20 million unemployed welcome free access to their job market by 55 million voracious new workers?

Current EU policy could hardly be less friendly: EU trade negotiators haggle over the tariffs and restrictions on every kilo of Polish raspberries, every truck of Hungarian lamb and every ton of Czech steel - even though our exports amount to only 1 per cent of all EU imports, whereas their own exports to Central Europe grow exponentially. Every upset in the Ruhr valley leads to a change in the steel quota; every motorway blocked with French courgettes causes negotiators to heap new restrictions on our products. It is hard to believe that the EU will reform itself any time soon, and certainly not for the sake of solidarity with Central Europe.

The similarities to the Twenties and Thirties are striking. The Western establishment has similar illusions about the ability of multilateral institutions to overcome the iron laws of the balance of power; feels a similar urge to disarm; exhibits similar indifference to the security concerns of Central Europe. In the Twenties and Thirties, Europeans put their faith in the League of Nations - and saw it dashed with the invasions of Manchuria and Abyssinia. In the Nineties, Europeans put their faith in the EU's ability to solve the conflict in Bosnia and saw that it was no more effective. If the EU is today's League of Nations, and Bosnia is our Abyssinia, then Nato's blackballing of Central Europe is the new Locarno - the 1925 treaty that secured borders in the west but not in the east.

But perhaps it is right for the West, Britain and the United States in particular, to stay well clear of this troublesome area. Didn't Britain pay dearly for allowing herself to be dragged into war over Danzig? In fact, the lesson of the Thirties is that Britain and the US should have involved themselves in Central Europe much earlier.

It was not for the sake of our blue eyes, as we say in Poland, that Britain went to war in 1939, but because the balance of power on the Continent would have been fatally tilted if Hitler had succeeded in dominating Central Europe unopposed: with Czech industry, Romanian oilfields and Polish slave labour, he could have dominated the rest of Europe, and almost did. The Cold War of 1945-89 reinforces the lesson that whoever controls Central Europe is a threat. It was only by occupying Central Europe, after all, that the Soviet Union posed a direct challenge to the West.

Fortunately, today's Germany is a model democracy and has been an advocate for Central Europe's interests in both Nato and the EU. Understandably, Germany would like to extend the zone of security and prosperity - which today ends an hour's drive from Berlin - further east. But Germany's influence in both institutions has not been decisive.

Russia on the other hand, is a deeply traumatised country, struggling with the triple legacies of empire, dictatorship and economic lunacy, in conditions hardly conducive to the growth of liberal democracy. While it is in everybody's interests to wish Russia's democrats well, Russia may become capitalist without becoming democratic. In that case, it will continue to pose a threat to its neighbours. Even under Yeltsin, Russia makes territorial claims on Ukraine, helps to overthrow democratically elected regimes in Tajikistan, Azerbaijan and Georgia, and proposes security domination over Central Europe. If these are reformist policies, one wonders what Russian policy will look like when Russia regains its strength. The day when it decides to reassert its strategic dominance of Central Euorpe may not be too far off.

Western policy is hardly designed to prevent such a scenario. The more vigorously the West shuts out Central European goods, the greater the pain of transition to capitalism. The greater the pain, the more likely the left- wing backlash of the sort we have already seen in Poland and Lithuania. The bigger the backlash, the weaker the eastern economies and the stronger the West's excuse for excluding us from EU membership. Thus, instead of becoming a poorer but integrated part of the West, we will become a buffer zone between the West and an unstable, Russia-dominated cluster of post-Soviet states. Instead of exporting raspberries and steel, Central Europe will export pollution, immigrants and disease. We will need a name for this new shape of Europe. After the Europes of Versailles and Yalta, welcome to the Europe of Maastricht.

The writer is former deputy defence minister of Poland.