Time for the twain to meet: East Europe needs our help now. Timothy Garton Ash, Dominique Mosi and Michael Mertes explain why

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AT ITS Brussels summit, Nato promised more to East-Central Europe than seemed likely before the Russian elections. The door to future membership has been declared theoretically open, hints have been given as how best to approach that door; but no clear conditions have been laid out for passing through it. This should be done sooner rather than later.

Meanwhile, though, it is worth reflecting on the complementary tasks and possibilities of the other great Brussels house, the European Union. For its founding fathers, the European Community was neither just a West European free trade area de luxe nor merely a West European association against the Soviet threat. Its most important purpose was to make war between European nations and states impossible. Economic integration was a means to that higher political end. However, with time, as so often happens, the means have come to be taken for the end. And the original end has been largely forgotten in Western Europe, partly because it has been achieved. In Western Europe, that is.

Yet South-eastern and Eastern Europe once again have wars. The area we call East- Central Europe, certainly including Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Slovenia, is both geographically and politically somewhere in between. Mourir pour Sarajevo? has become all too real a question; above all for those countries, including some East-Central European states, with troops in the former Yugoslavia. Mourir pour Danzig? remains, thank heaven, still a purely hypothetical one.

In the still fortunately hypothetical case of an acute external threat to the security of East-Central Europe, we in the West would be called to give an answer more substantial either than the Partnerships for Peace or than that given in practice, so far, to martyred Bosnia. However, we in Western Europe, in the EU, have political and economic means at our disposal to help to ensure that the potential internal sources of insecurity in this region are diminished, not exacerbated.

Two things, above all, need to be done. First, as a matter of urgency, we must ensure that West European markets are prised open for the goods that the East-Central European states can export now. The continuation of their fragile economic recovery depends on these exports, and the consolidation of their fledgling democracies depends on that economic recovery. At the moment we have shameful and shamefaced protectionism, whether against Polish textiles, Czech steel or Hungarian foodstuffs.

We send those countries countless advisers to preach the virtues of the free market and free trade. But we do not practise what we preach. They are told they can hope to join the EU only if they transform their economies, but they are denied by that same EU the market access which alone would sustain that transformation - a perfect catch-22.

It would be nave to pretend this will be easy at a time of acute recession. Conventional wisdom suggests it will cost jobs in Western Europe to keep or make jobs in East-Central Europe. But this is only half the truth. It fails to take account of the new export opportunities that a sustained recovery in the east would bring for West European producers. In the longer term, opening Western Europe to the fresh breezes of low-wage competition should be part of the salutary shock which is needed to restore our competitiveness in a wider world. If the United States was right to embrace the North American Free Trade Agreement for all its short-term costs, then the European Union should welcome a Nefta - a new European free-trade area.

Second, the EU should give more political substance to what is already understood to be an 'engagement contract' with East-Central European states. In this respect, the Maastricht treaty is not just the end of an old road. It also contains elements of a new beginning, particularly with its explicit and implicit provisions for variable geometry. For example, not all EU members will join in European monetary union (EMU); not all will participate in defence integration within the framework of the Western European Union (WEU). In turn, there will be states such as Turkey which do not belong to the EU but are associate members of the WEU.

This new flexibility offers chances for developing the relationship with East-Central Europe. In a joint article more than two years ago, we suggested that these states should be invited to participate directly in at least some of the foreign and security policy discussions of the EC member states. The case for doing so has not grown any weaker. We also suggested that they should be given some way of being involved in the European elections of 1994, as a trial run for full participation in the elections of 1999.

In thinking about the enlargement negotiations after 1995, one should reaffirm the principle of the primacy of politics which guided the founding fathers of the European Community. Especially with the new flexibility of the EU, it is not at all impossible to envisage full political membership together with long-term economic transition arrangements. We did it for Spain, Portugal and Greece. We did it in the very special case of the former East Germany. We could do it again.

A further consequence is that, in thinking about the future institutional and constitutional shape of the EU, we must be thinking of arrangements which would work with 20 or more member states. And last, but not least, there is associate membership of the WEU - a bridge to the security which Nato is still so reluctant to offer.

Each one of these steps would help to combat the disillusionment with 'Europe' that is now so palpable in countries that set out to return to Europe with so much hope and elan just four years ago. In those four years, our neighbours have grown used to hearing from us the 'yes' which in fact means 'no'. In 1994, at least one of the two great Brussels houses should offer a 'yes' that really means yes.

Timothy Garton Ash is a Fellow of St Antony's College, Oxford, and author, most recently, of 'In Europe's Name: Germany and the Divided Continent'. Michael Mertes is a senior policy adviser in the Federal Chancellery in Bonn, but writes here in his personal capacity. Dominique Mosi is deputy director of the French International Relations Institute (IFRI) and editor of 'Politique Etrangere. This article will appear in several European newspapers.

(Photograph omitted)

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