Prague, 12 September 1996 (RFE/RL) -- From the very outset of his official visit to Poland -- his first to Eastern Europe since taking office 16 months ago -- President Jacques Chirac has taken pains to announce what his spokesmen are billing as a new French policy toward the area's former communist nations. And Chirac has been repeating the message ever since.
Barely arrived in Warsaw yesterday afternoon, Chirac hastened to tell his Polish counterpart, Aleksander Kwasniewski, that he would do "everything in (his) power" to hasten the entry of Poland, "on the best possible terms," into the European Union and NATO.
According to a Polish presidential spokesman, Chirac also expressed the hope that in three or four years Poland will be a member of the EU. Later yesterday, addressing French residents in Warsaw, Chirac put it this way:
"Poland will be, without doubt, one of the first, or even the first, to enter the EU."
In an address this morning to a joint session of both houses of the Polish Parliament, Chirac went even further in proclaiming Paris' support for early integration of Poland -- and, by inference, of other reforming East European nations -- into what they consider the two most important Western multilateral organizations, the EU and NATO. The nationally-televised, 30-minute speech had earlier been advertized by French officials as the high point of Chirac's three-day visit. If explicit pledges were the measure, it was.
Chirac told the Polish parliamentarians that he wants "Poland to join our (European) union from the year 2000." He also said France would warmly support Poland's membership in NATO and in the West European Union, the EU's defense arm.
Expanding the EU, Chirac said, "is not a vague, distant prospect any more. In a little more than a year," he promised, "negotiations for (new) membership will start." And in 1997, he also promised, "the process of Poland's admission into NATO should definitely get under way," he added, "I hope that those negotiations will be quickly completed."
Chirac did not specify how Poland's entry into the EU could be effected by the end of the century. Officials at the union's headquarters in Brussels have said repeatedly that the year 2002 is the earliest realistic date for membership by qualifying East European nations.
Chirac aides argue that Poland could enter sooner than then -- but initially as part of a long transition period that would keep it, and other Eastern candidate states, out of both the EU's common agricultural policy and its single market. Some French analysts suggest, however, that since both those institutions are at the core of EU federalism, the envisaged transitional period would in fact be little more than honorary membership.
In any case, Chirac is already pressing France's 14 fellow EU member states to address directly, at a higher level and more productively than in the past, the problems of membership for East European nations as quickly as possible. Last weekend, at an informal meeting of EU foreign ministers in Dublin, France's chief diplomat Herve de Charette urged the convening of an urgent EU summit early next month, October 5 was suggested, to discuss structural reforms.
These reforms are necessary before the EU can even prepare to expand to the East. They are also the chief subject of the union's inter-governmental conference (IGC) launched earlier this year. But the IGC has made little progress so far and Chirac, a strong believer in summit diplomacy, wants personally to urge his counterparts to make the necessary comprises on EU structural reforms. Those include, notably, changes in voting procedures and in the common agricultural policy, whose subsidies to farmers now consume more than half of the EU budget.
Chirac has also backed up his promise that France will actively support NATO's expansion to the east at an even earlier date. Once the odd-man out of the 16-nation Atlantic alliance, France under Chirac has moved rapidly toward reintegration -- particularly, military integration--- in NATO. Chirac still publicly insists on an autonomous European arm for the alliance -- a sop to some of the more doctrinaire Gaullists in his conservative coalition -- but his actions in moving toward swift French reintegration, after a quarter-of-a-century of semi-outsider status, seem to belie his words.
French officials say that all this adds up to a virtual reversal of the policy of Chirac's predecessor in the Elysee Palace, Socialist Francois Mitterrand, whose policy toward Eastern Europe some of them call "lukewarm" and "standoff-ish" at best. Mitterrand will perhaps be best remembered in the area as the Western leader who in 1991 spoke of decades being necessary before East European countries could join the EU. His virtually public quarrel with Czech President Vaclav Havel over the issue broke out into the open at a Prague meeting that year, the same meeting where Mitterrand made his notorious, almost off-hand remark about decades at a press conference.
If Mitterrand was standoff-ish toward Eastern Europe, French businessmen were also highly skeptical about engaging themselves in the area immediately after the 1989 collapse of communism. As a result, France today is only Poland's fifth largest trade partner and fourth largest investor -- after the United States, multinational firms and Germany, which has placed some $600 million in the country since 1990.
Chirac is seeking to change that, too. He has taken with him to Warsaw a group of French industrialists whom he hopes will expand their dealings with Poland and other East European nations. Given the traditional hesitancy of French businessmen to invest abroad without full government protection -- not forthcoming nowadays, with France's stagnating economy and austere economic policies -- he is not likely to be as successful in changing businessmen's attitudes as he has, patently, in changing France's diplomatic stance.