Central European leaders call on EU to keep momentum of enlargement

Central European leaders have issued a new call expressing support to those countries waiting to join the European Union, appealing to the EU to keep the momentum of enlargement to southern and eastern Europe. The call came at the end of a meeting of the Central European Initiative in the Slovak spa town of Piestany.

For those countries still waiting for EU membership, the CEI is a chance to mingle with leaders of those countries who are already inside it. Slovakia, which is chairing the CEI this year, is a good example. For years, under the autocratic prime minister Vladimir Meciar, Slovakia was almost a pariah state and EU membership seemed in jeopardy. The government of Mikulas Dzurinda, however, managed to turn the country around and it joined the EU with the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland in 2004.

Mr Dzurinda told reporters that CEI membership - though its benefits were difficult to measure in exact terms - had provided Slovakia with an extremely useful forum.

"It is quite difficult to measure. But I can tell you that the exchange of views, meeting each other, speaking together, this is the substance via which I believe we were capable of going ahead faster. It was important in the beginning, seven years ago, when I started in this position, to meet the prime minister of Italy. I remember our meeting in Trieste. It was quite important to meet the chancellor of Austria. I believe that thanks to this possibility, to communicate, to implement new programmes, these means are substantial and good for the countries which are trying to follow the same way."

Jiri Paroubek
The Czech Prime Minister Jiri Paroubek was also at the meeting. He summed up what had been discussed in Piestany:

"It was negotiation about the future of Europe, about co-operation on the base of this Central European Initiative, and future co-operation in the European Union."

The CEI is so diverse. It includes countries which recently joined the EU, like the Czech Republic, countries which have been in the EU for several years, like Austria, and countries which are very far from joining the EU, such as Moldova or Belarus. How can an organisation such as the CEI be effective when its members are so different?

"It is a kind of club, and it's necessary to say that in future this club could support membership of other countries in a better club."

Those CEI countries which are hoping to join that "better club" - the European Union - in the near future include Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia. But the EU doesn't plan to stop there. It has ambitions to extend further into the western Balkans and possibly into Eastern Europe. That, however, is subject to political and of course financial considerations. Real question mark hangs over the future expansion of the EU: a year ago, after the Orange Revolution, everyone was talking about the possibility of Ukraine joining, but the EU has gone rather quiet on the matter in last few months.

Next year it will be Albania's to chair the CEI. Albania is often described as the poorest country in Europe. The conventional wisdom is that EU membership for Albania is a long way off, but Prime Minister Sali Berisha told the media his country was making great strides and there was a realistic chance of Albania joining in the next decade.