Prague, 12 May 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The prospect of European Union membership for the countries of Central and East Europe has put Brussels increasingly in the spotlight of diplomatic activity.
Brussels, the capital of Belgium, is a picturesque city of little more than a million people. But it is also the seat of the key EU institutions, as well as of the NATO alliance. As such it is at the center of a growing web of political, economic and social contacts spreading across the continent. In the ancient world, there was the saying "All roads lead to Rome". Today, more and more roads lead to Brussels.
In recognition of this, eastern candidates have opened special diplomatic missions there to maintain constant contact with EU officials. All five "first wave" candidates -- Estonia, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland -- have such missions. So do "second wave" hopefuls Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, and Romania, as well as more distant prospects for EU membership, Croatia and Ukraine. Other transition states are of course diplomatically represented in Brussels, but they just have their normal embassies whose original task is to handle bilateral relations with Belgium.
Take Latvia for example. Just over as year ago it opened a separate mission to the EU staffed by four diplomats from the foreign ministry, plus representatives of the ministries of economy and finance, agriculture, regional development and environment, and culture and education.
The mission's counselor Mrs Dace Krievane told RFE/RL that it is a key strategy of the mission to have experts on hand from the various Latvian ministries to liaise directly with the relevant EU officials, thus greatly speeding the interchange of information from both sides in the run up to prospective Latvian membership.
Krievane says that as the tempo of the contacts increases, Latvia has started to feel involved in all the processes.
She says that much now depends on the Latvian side, to show the EU how the country is progressing. She said the staff's initial feeling was that they were like marionettes, with the European Commission pulling the strings, and with the Latvians unable to express their own achievements. But now, she said that the situation has changed, because the Latvian team is very closely and strongly involved in everything.
A typical working day centers on attending meetings on relevant topics at the invitation of EU officials, to exchange information as "screening" gets underway -- that is, the process of comparing legislation in the applicant country with EU norms.
Not far from the Latvian mission, in the Avenue Marnix, is the mission of Slovenia, a "first wave' applicant country. The mission has already been open for nearly six years, soon after Slovenia gained independence. The mission deputy chief is Mitja Drobnic.
He says that from a professional point of view, Brussels is a key spot, because integration with the EU is Slovenia's most important international task. He says the price that must be paid for this is the very heavy workload that the diplomats have to carry.
In contrast to the larger missions, the Slovenes do not have ministerial representatives resident in Brussels. Instead their people from the ministries make regular visits from Ljubljana to consult with their EU counterparts.
Drobnic says the Slovenes have had good results in communicating with the various EU institutions. He says experience has shown that those institutions are sufficiently transparent to candidate countries, and that the EU officials are open to discussion.
Slovenia, in line with its ambitions to be a full member of Europe, last month opened a separate diplomatic mission to NATO in Brussels.
Most of the applicant countries' missions are located in or close to what's is called the European Area of Brussels, the district where the major offices of the EU are located. To be sited elsewhere means that staff would have to spend too much time traveling in the city's thick traffic. This district, stretching from the king's town palace to the triumphal archway in the Parc du Cinquantenaire, is today an awkward architectural mixture as old houses are pulled down to make way for ever more extravagant EU structures. One building recently demolished was once home to the sculptor Rodin.
Diplomats describe Brussels as a comfortable posting. They grumble about the schools for foreigners, which are either too expensive or overcrowded. But housing is not expensive by international standards, and the food is unexcelled. One thing is sure. Ever more East European officials will get to know the trials and pleasures of life in Brussels as eastward expansion gathers pace.