EC Speeds Up Moves To Include Eastern Europe

Spurred by Soviet collapse, EC ministers agree to back Baltic states

European Community foreign ministers took action this week that will likely lead the Community to include more than its 12 Western European members much sooner than expected.Most notably, the EC decided unanimously Tuesday to recognize the independence of the three Baltic republics, and to establish individual diplomatic relations with them. In addition to recognizing the sovereignty of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, the EC agreed to "support the Baltic States in their economic and political development," and to "explore all avenues for economic cooperation." That emphasis on political and economic cooperation, along with a decision to accelerate the conclusion of economic accords with Eastern Europe, is part of a snowball effect that, in the wake of a whirlwind decomposition of the Soviet Union, may now lead to a powerhouse EC of 20 members or more before the year 2000.

Faster EC expansion "A number of actions on seemingly different topics were taken [by the ministers]," says one long-time British observer of the EC, "but when you boil it all down it implies movement towards an enlargement of the Community much sooner than anyone up to now had thought." Not too long ago French President Francois Mitterrand said it would be "dozens and dozens of years" before any of the Eastern European countries would be ready economically to join the EC. The prospect of an unstable and splintering Soviet giant to the east is causing the EC to open its arms a little faster. The ministers decided to move up their next meeting from Sept. 30 to Sept. 4, to discuss proposals from the European Commission, the EC's executive branch, and to hasten association negotiations with Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia. The proposals will include deeper economic concessions to open the EC to goods from these countries, a step that will in effect begin binding their economies to the EC. Other assistance to Bulgaria, Romania, and Albania will also be on the table. The foreign ministers of the Baltic states will be invited to attend the meeting, where first steps towards closer EC ties will be considered. The EC's growing preoccupation with Eastern Europe has led to building speculation that the Community will be forced to slow its own drive to bind its 12 members in closer economic and political union. But Commission President Jacques Delors says this should not be allowed to happen. "History is accelerating, so we must accelerate with it," he said Tuesday, adding, "We must reinforce our capacity to act ... and to carry our full weight in the world and notably in Greater Europe." Dutch Foreign Minister Hans van den Broeck, whose country currently holds the EC's revolving six-month presidency, said the Community would also call a summit of its 12 heads of state for mid-September to focus on changes in Eastern Europe, including how Western Europe should respond to rapid changes in the Soviet Union. A French proposal to invite Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and Russian President Boris Yeltsin to the summit garnered some support, but also caused one Dutch spokesman to quip, "Does anyone really think either one of them is about to leave their country right now?" While there were no grandiose calls from the ministers for huge new aid programs to the Soviet Union, the general tenor was that reforms now taking place merited a stronger Western response.

Easing Soviet winter French Foreign Minister Roland Dumas said the EC and other international organizations must now find a more "dynamic" approach for working with both the Soviet central government and the republics on economic aid. Mr. Delors said the first priority will be to "fill the stores" in the Soviet Union in order to head off catastrophic winter food shortages. Modernization of the country's distribution system is a key, he said. First, however, the question of "Who is responsible for what?" will have to be answered, Delors noted. He said that virtually all the Soviet officials with whom the commission agreed on allocating $500 million in technical assistance no longer hold their positions. Obviously worried by the potential ramifications of a period of instability or anarchy in the Soviet Union, Mr. van den Broeck said the Community would "seek in the future to promote a coherent voice" to speak for Soviet interests in foreign policy, defense, and financial relations.

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