French Open for Security Buffs

France hosts yet another European conference, hoping to spark bilaterals on borders, minorities

WITH the French Open tennis tournament in full swing this week, much of the world may be watching Paris with eyes darting back and forth across a red clay court. But something else will be going on in the French capital that officials here hope will play a role in ridding an unstable Europe of the kind of flash points that could lead to future Yugoslavias.

Foreign ministers and officials of more than 50 European countries, the United States, and Canada gather here May 26-27 for a conference on stability in Europe. ``What, yet another?'' would be a comprehensible response from anyone aware of the innumerable conferences and summits that have taken up the same subject recently.

But the French, who first proposed this particular security conference a year ago, insist this initiative is different and can play a positive and as-yet-untried role. ``The essential idea is to clear the mines as much as possible from the construction site of the future Europe,'' a French diplomat says.

The two-day conference is supposed to be simply the stage-setter for a series of bilateral ``preventive'' negotiations between countries with disputes over borders or minority rights. On their own initiative, countries would agree to sit down with each other to settle disputes that risk blowing up. Then in early 1995, the same countries would gather again to sign a security ``pact,'' which would consist of accords worked out during the negotiating period.

``We can't say beforehand how many sets of such bilateral talks will occur, because it will be up to the countries themselves to initiate them,'' the French diplomat says. ``We [in the European Union] will be ready to advise and facilitate their discussions if we are asked, but the countries concerned will have to want to seize this opportunity.''

The idea for such a European security pact originated with French Prime Minister Edouard Balladur shortly after he took office in April 1993. Doubters have continued to see the initiative as a way for Mr. Balladur, a likely candidate in next year's French presidential elections, to give himself some foreign affairs dimension. Kinder observers say it may have been the initiative of someone with ``fresh eyes'' taking a hard look at the dangers the new Europe presents. Balladur, a former economic minister, has had virtually no experience in international affairs.

The proposal met with little initial enthusiasm: Some countries feared creation of yet another institution like the 20-year-old Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, while some Eastern Europeans considered the idea condescending. (``Will this conference take up Western Europe's stability problems, like Northern Ireland?'' some asked). But in June 1993, the 12-country EU took on the French proposal, and since then, the somewhat vague original idea has been honed to the current focus on border and minority issues in Eastern Europe's 10 likeliest EU candidates.

``We see this as a way of helping prepare the Central and Eastern European countries for [Union] membership,'' says a British official.

Indeed, no one could fault EU leaders for seeking what amounts to a signed ``good neighbor'' policy from Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, the three Baltic States, and Slovenia before they reach their goal of entering the Union. But as ministers of these and other Eastern European countries listen to Greek Foreign Minister Theodore Pangalos give one of the conference's opening speeches, they may think of the ongoing dispute between EU member Greece and its neighbor, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and wonder why the exemplary West didn't put some order in its own house first.

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