SINCE the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the Western Europe of the European Union has run hot and cold on embracing its neighbors to the East.
But as Hungary submits today its formal application for Union membership, signs are growing that the coming months will constitute the year of Eastern Europe.
Last week, Commission President Jacques Delors held a ``brainstorming session'' with his commission colleagues as the kickoff of an updating and intensification of initiatives toward the East. And during a recent visit to Paris, German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel announced that the German and French governments had agreed to coordinate their consecutive six-month presidencies of the Union, beginning with Germany's in July, around an ``Ostpolitik'' designed to irreversibly anchor Central and Eastern Europe to the West.
``It is not possible to have encouraged for decades [Eastern Europe] to join our Western community of freedom,'' Mr. Kinkel said in Paris, ``only to tell them now that there is no more room for them in the European house.''
Such sentiments have been publicly aired for years, particularly by former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. She repeatedly warned that a failure to open up faster to the East risked dooming Europe to another division.
What has changed now is that a reunited Germany feels ready to nudge its EU partners toward an accelerated integration of the East. Other factors are playing a part as well:
* The rise of ultranationalists in Russia has convinced Europeans that faster integration of Eastern countries is the best way to guarantee the continent's security.
* Ratification of the Maastricht Treaty last year eased fears that enlargement would doom the Union's economic and political integration.
* And recent completion of membership negotiations with Austria, Finland, Norway, and Sweden for entry by Jan. 1, 1995, clears the way for looking toward the next expansion phase. In addition, the four current candidates are staunch supporters of Eastern expansion.
But the principal impetus remains a reinforced Germany's focus on Eastern Europe. If France, after some questioning of Germany's intentions, decided to embrace Kinkel's proposal for coordinated Union presidencies, it is largely because the French know from experience that they have more interest in working with Germany than trying - probably vainly - to thwart it.
Mr. Delors's desire to intensify the commission's work with the East also bears a German imprint. ``Certainly one of the reasons [for Delors's initiative] is the upcoming German presidency,'' a close Delors aide says.
For Germany, an Eastern focus is only right after the Mediterranean focus of the last decades, when Greece, Spain, and Portugal were admitted - under expensive transition plans that Germany largely paid for. ``The Baltic Sea is just as much a European sea as the Mediterranean,'' German Chancellor Helmut Kohl said recently in Bonn, giving a list of Germany's ideas for integrating at least the likeliest Union candidates into EU decisionmaking.
Pressure for the EU's eastern expansion is also coming from the East itself. Close on Hungary's heels, Poland intends to submit its formal application later this month, and both the Czech Republic and Slovakia are expected to be right behind. Romania and Bulgaria would be expected to come along later.
By applying now, the East's first in line intend to start a stopwatch for their goal of entry by the end of the decade. ``We have been very clear about a goal of accession by about 2000, and realizing what a lengthy process it is, we want to set the timetable and get the clock moving,'' says Peter Gottfried, deputy chief of Hungary's mission to the EU.
Although EU leaders formally accepted the idea of Eastern expansion at their Copenhagen summit last June, no timetable was set. Much attention now will be placed on initiatives for the years leading up to full membership. ``We need a package of measures to help prepare us for membership and that take account of our changed economic and political conditions,'' says Mr. Gottfried. For example, the economic programs that since 1990 have emphasized technical assistance must be updated to encourage investment and infrastructure development, he says.
Poland is suggesting a two-speed accession, with political integration first. ``We can foresee the idea of accession to political areas first and the economic later,'' says Jan Kulakowski, Poland's ambassador to the EU.
Where the Easterners agree is that the EU public must be better prepared for their Union's eastern expansion - and understand why it will be good for everyone.
``The public still thinks in terms of short-term difficulties, such as in agriculture,'' Gottfried says. ``What isn't known well enough is that the [EU] exports to Hungary much more than we do to them, and ours are young markets.'' As for security, Mr. Kulakowski adds, ``Our only true security today can come from one united Europe.''