Bloc of Six Jockey for EU Membership

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For Spain and Portugal the journey from dictatorship to European Union membership took little more than a decade, but for the nations of post-communist Europe it could last anything up to double that.

Economists and academics from East and West believe countries such as Poland and the Czech Republic will be lucky to join the EU by the middle of the next decade, with the prospects for Hungary only a little better.

Most forecast that the Czech Republic, Estonia, Poland and Slovenia will join in 2005.

For Hungary, which perhaps leads the central Europeans in preparing for EU membership, the forecast was 2004 along with Cyprus, the only fast track applicant never ruled by communists.

Mr Anthony Thomas, central European economist at Dresdner Kleinwort Benson in London, forecast that all six countries could join in 2005, but stressed this was only the earliest possible date. "In reality it will be nearer 2008 or 2009," he said.

The central Europeans overthrew communism in 1989 so the forecasts mean they will take anything between 16 and 20 years finally to join the club of rich European democracies.

In contrast Spain joined the EU 11 years after the death of the dictator General Franco. Portugal was in 12 years after military rule collapsed in 1974 and Greece took seven years.

Most of the central European countries hope to join in 2003 and Hungary a year earlier. But this looks over-optimistic and the EU has avoided setting any

target dates for enlargement.

It simply has other worries. The European visionary Helmut Kohl has been voted out as German chancellor. The present generation of EU leaders have more immediate problems, such as making monetary union work and reforming the budget and voting system.

"Enlargement is a top priority but not the highest one," said Mr Jan Stankovsky, of the WIFO research institute in Vienna.

"Since the change in the political scene in Germany the priority of enlargement is not as great as under Mr Kohl."

Kohl harnessed euphoria after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 to push for EU enlargement to create a zone of stability and prosperity to the East. But ten years on the visionaries are gone or distracted and the profit and loss account now matters.

Recruiting in the East will not be cheap as a major aim of EU policies is to narrow the gap between the richest and poorest member states. After 40 years of communism that gap is wide.

Slovenia was never part of the Soviet bloc and developed better under the less dogmatic Yugoslav model of socialism. Yet its gross domestic product per head of population is only 60 per cent of the EU average, when adjusted for purchasing power.

Figures for others are even lower: the Czech Republic is at about 52 per cent while Hungary and Poland languish at about 40. …