Leading Article: Failure of vision

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The Independent Online
ONE OF the many good reasons for getting the Maastricht treaty out of the way as soon as possible is that its travails are distracting attention from the looming problems of central and eastern Europe. If the European Community fails to rise to the challenge they pose, its internal wrangles will pale into irrelevance beside the turbulence on its doorstep. The need is not for charity but for a clear view of the Community's vital political and economic interest in the transformation of the former Soviet satellites into prosperous democracies.

Yesterday's meeting in London with leaders of the 'Visegrad group', comprising Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, was welcome as far as it went. There was agreement on intensified consultation and co-operation with the EC. John Major and Jacques Delors talked of the importance of 'free trade stretching right across the Continent'. Friendly assurances and pious hopes were in plentiful supply. The reality, however, is that the Community's response to the opportunities in eastern Europe has been shamefully inadequate and short-sighted.

The worst failure has been to impose a series of restrictions on the exports of the Visegrad countries to the Community. These limit their earning power in just those sectors that are most important to them, notably food, iron, steel and textiles. True, quotas are to be increased gradually, but it is now that these countries most need to earn from existing capacity. Later they can restructure.

If restrictions were removed altogether, the impact on the EC as a whole would be negligible. What has happened is that small interest groups seeking protection have been able to override the broad interests of the Community. The unfairness of this policy is further reinforced by granting the Visegrad countries only two to five years before they must open their markets to the EC. To insist on symmetry in such an asymmetrical situation is extremely short-sighted. Although this is a bad moment to call on a chastened and unpopular Commission to assert itself on behalf of the common interest, until the association agreements containing these provisions are significantly revised, protestations of goodwill towards central and eastern Europe will carry little weight.

Almost equally self-defeating is the EC's unwillingness to offer the Visegrad countries even a provisional timetable and set of conditions on which to focus their endeavours. At the moment the Community is not even formally committed in principle to welcoming their eventual membership. Nor has it properly explored the possibility of granting them immediate access to selected aspects of membership. The Maastricht treaty has accepted the principle of a la carte membership. If some members can opt out of bits of the treaty, others could opt in to those parts already within their reach.

When the Soviet satellites found their freedom, they looked to the EC as the repository of all their aspirations. Now they see a wrangling bunch of inward-looking states that has failed its first test in Yugoslavia and seems more concerned with bringing in the rich Efta members than reaching out for a vision of a wider Europe that would enable the continent to fulfil its huge potential. There is still time to restore those hopes, but little sign of readiness to do so.