As Four States Prepare to Join EU, East Stuck on Fringes

`JA zu Osterreich! Ja zu Europa!'' say the billboard posters and the leaflets thrust into one's hands on the Stephansplatz these days. Austria is in the throes of an energetic campaign to get the country into the European Union. ``Yes to Austria! Yes to Europe! Every vote counts!''

The governing coalition parties - the Social Democrats and the conservative People's Party - are both for Austria entering the Union. Only the Freedom Party - a rightist party, with a neo-Nazi extremist fringe, which has been calling on voters to ``Defend Austria!'' - is against. The final word on whether Austria will end its half-century of neutrality by joining the Union will be heard in a national referendum June 12.

Three Nordic countries - Norway, Sweden, and Finland - will hold similar referendums later this year. Once the referendum hurdle is cleared, the four are expected to apply for EU membership and should be in at the start of 1995. Thus, in little more than six months, the Union will have 16 members instead of 12.

But the Central and East Europeans waiting in the wings are destined to be kept waiting for a long while yet.

Ever since it has been clear that the four neutrals were well on their way, the former Soviet satellites - now engaged in painful economic transition from command economies to the free market - have asked impatiently, ``What about us?''

There will be no easy way into the Union for Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary, even though their substantially reformed economic style has begun to equip them for integration into Europe. With high hopes, Hungary and Poland both lodged detailed cases for admission in April.

Their poverty is their overriding problem. Mostly due to the rigid Soviet communization of their economies following World War II, they are unfit to compete in a modern economic world. This has worsened as they freed themselves from Soviet tutelage, leaping into the stormy waters of transition a few years ago.

The poverty of the would-be members presents a major EU problem also, as the contrast between Eastern Europe and the four designate members sharply illustrates. The four have per capita incomes higher - up to 40 percent - than the EU's own average. The best-off East Europeans - Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary - are 30 percent below that average.

The difficulty lies in the EU's budgetary structures which, in effect, create a cast-iron barrier to coping with the East European's poverty. The hindrances lie in the structural funds designed to further economic convergence between the stronger and weaker members-to-be and the Common Agricultural Policy designed to safeguard European farmers.

Ironically, under the rules, the East Europeans are not poor enough to qualify for handouts from the structural funds. They also are more than twice as agrarian as the EU average and thus rely heavily for export on sectors most protected by the West.

Present EU members would surely balk at the cost of bending the structural rules to make things easier for the Poles, the Czechs, and the Hungarians, not to mention the still poorer Bulgarians, Romanians, Slovakians, and Albanians.

It seems the best the East Europeans can hope for is a more generous reading of the present ``association'' agreements with the EU and substantially greater access to its markets. ``We would still be second-class countries where EU is concerned,'' a veteran economic journalist said. But the front-runner trio might at least compel greater Western recognition of their current economic growth records - possibly 6 percent in the next few years - which is considerably higher than the Union's average.

East Europeans may come to see that furthering their own pioneering regional freer trade agreements is their best answer. Enlarged, these might become the means for stimulating Western interest in cooperation between the two halves of Europe.

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