Rich West Europe Stiff-Arms Poorer Cousins on EU Entry

Petar Soyanov was desperate. The new Bulgarian president was on his first trip abroad. At home, his country's economy was in free fall, with angry protesters demanding parliamentary elections. Here in Europe's capital, he pleaded for European Union and NATO support.

"Without sympathy and assistance, my country faces a social crisis of incalculable depth," Mr. Stoyanov said in a quiet, firm voice during his two-day visit in late January.

Across Central Europe and the Baltic, similar cries of distress are audible. And although Western Europe's leaders insist expansion to the East remains desirable and inevitable, these rich Europeans are preoccupied with their own disputes and stagnant economies.

Instead of seeing 100 million eager consumers emerging from behind the former Iron Curtain, they fear a flood of cheap products and labor - and the arrival of 100-million subsidy-seekers.

So the European Union is procrastinating. Before releasing any funds, they told Bulgaria's Stoyanov - and Romanian President Emil Constantinescu, who was in Brussels Feb. 3 and 4 requesting cash and security - that they must first get aid from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. EU membership, they say, can't be considered until well into the next century. And NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana told the Bulgarians and Romanians that they are not on the top of the list of potential NATO applicants.

"Enlargement is a matter of security and stability for the entire Continent," admits Nico Wegter, an EU official involved in the enlargement negotiations. "But it will take us time to get ready."

Just how much time has become an emotional issue. Political leaders such as German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and French President Jacques Chirac recently told Poland and Hungary, respectively, they should join the EU by 2000.

But Mr. Wegter and his fellow Eurocrats last week penned a report saying "the earliest realistic date for the first accession is likely to be no earlier than 2002." The Eurocrats later backtracked, calling the statement "erroneous." But the cautious bureaucrats continue to predict in private that expansion won't take place until well into the next century.

Things hopping at NATO

Across town, at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization headquarters, officials have shown more urgency: Invitations to Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland, and perhaps Slovenia are expected to be issued this summer. President Clinton set a target date of 1999 for the new members.

"It's exciting these days at NATO," says Toivo Klaar, an Estonian diplomat. "There's a sense of urgency."

Ironically, though, while everyone at the EU agrees on the principle of enlargement - if not the pace - the expansion of NATO is controversial. In recent weeks, many have expressed worry about extending the US nuclear umbrella and provoking Russia.

NATO also has provoked anger by offering membership to only some Central Europeans. Those left out fear the creation of a new Iron Curtain in the East, with a central core accepted into Western institutions, and unlucky others left out. The newly independent Baltic countries, for example, are furious at being told that they cannot join because of their direct borders with Russia.

"By saying we are indefensible, you imply that we face an impending threat," says Estonian diplomat Klaar. "That sends the wrong message to Russia, suggesting that the West actually believes in a real Russian threat."

At the EU, too, accepting only a few new entrants could be divisive. While Bulgarian President Stoyanov said he "understood" his country couldn't be among the first, he insisted that talks for entry begin with everyone "at the same time, using a level playing field."

Calls for reform

But lobbyists and bureaucrats based in Brussels fear otherwise. If 10 new Central European members are admitted, and the EU's present farm programs are extended to all new farmers, the cost would be a budget-busting $15.5 billion per year. "We will go bankrupt unless we reform before the East Europeans enter," admits Gerald Kieley, an EU spokesman.

Cutting agricultural subsidies represents an obvious solution. But instead of reform, West European farm unions would prefer to keep Easterners out in the cold. "We don't want to pay for the Central and East Europeans," says Beatrix Kaber of the main German farm union, the Deutscher Bauernverband.

The EU also must reform its decisionmaking process so an enlarged 25-member group avoids gridlock. But Britain resists any proposals to dilute national vetoes and give more discretionary powers to Brussels.

That leaves talks on hold until after British elections this spring, and the hope in European Commission corridors is that a new Labour government in London will be more flexible. "The British must understand their delay on institutional reform could mean delay for Central and East Europe enlargement," says Wegter.

Even if the agreement on institutional reform finally is reached at a summit in Amsterdam this June, the door still will not open right away for eager East Europeans. Negotiations on entry will start only six months later. It took seven years to prepare for the entry of Spain and Portugal in the 1980s, and two years of difficult bargaining for rich Finland, Sweden, and Austria to get in.

In contrast, Central Europeans enjoy only one-third of the West's per-capita income. So unless some visionary leaders appear to push the process forward, ever-cautious Eurocrats say it could take decades for them to get in.

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