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East: Visegrad Group Presidents Emphasize EU, NATO Expansion

Castolovice, Czech Republic; 22 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The presidents of the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland met for a one-day summit today during which they emphasized the historic importance of the European Union's planned expansion and their common expectation that their countries will join the organization in 2004.

Czech President Vaclav Havel, Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski, and Hungarian President Ferenc Madl spoke during an annual summit meeting of the Visegrad Group countries. This year's summit took place at Castolovice castle in the Czech Republic. Slovak President Rudolf Schuster did not attend because of illness.

During a news conference, Havel spoke forcefully about the importance of EU expansion. "It's a challenge whose fulfillment is a core interest for all Europeans. At issue is not the fact that we who lived in another world, divided, apart, are seeking membership in a club of prospering countries. At issue is the fact that it is in the interest of all of Europe and in the interest of the whole world that this process continue," Havel said.

Kwasniewski agreed with Havel, saying the three presidents had recommitted themselves at their summit today to raising public awareness, both in their own countries and in current EU member states, about the importance of expansion.

Kwasniewski called on all involved to rise above sometimes petty disputes to fulfill a broader vision. "We are encouraging public opinion in our countries to support the historic decision of joining the European Union. And we also agreed to spare no effort to convince public opinion within the European Union to support expansion, so that these countries and societies do not look upon expansion solely in technical categories, in negotiation parameters, in purely economic terms. A great task is being accomplished, a great task [in terms of] culture and civilization. After hundreds of years of divisions, after hundreds of years of wars and destruction and barbarism [and] totalitarianism, we can unite and build a worthy, common future," Kwasniewski said.

Kwasniewski, Havel, and Madl each made a point of saying they expect the EU to stick to its current timetable so that entry negotiations can be completed next year and membership can begin in 2004.

The three presidents said they support holding referenda in their countries ahead of accession. Kwasniewski said they had agreed to coordinate these polls so they are held in close succession, in what Kwasniewski termed a "cascade."

He noted that if a referendum were first held in Hungary, for example, where pro-EU accession support is estimated at 80 percent, it might encourage voters in Poland and the Czech Republic, where voters are more skeptical, also to vote for EU entry.

Current EU support among Czech voters, for example, is put at just below 50 percent. Analysts ascribe this to disappointment among Czechs on the EU's insistence that new members will have to face temporary limits on the movement of people and labor. At the beginning, the EU also wants to give farmers in new member countries only one-quarter of the subsidies their colleagues who are already in the EU currently enjoy.

The three presidents also devoted a significant part of their talks to NATO's planned summit in Prague this November. Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic joined the alliance in 1999 in a first wave of Eastern expansion. During the Prague summit, the alliance is expected to extend invitations to a second wave of applicants.

Madl, citing a figure of "seven to eight new members," said he hoped NATO's second expansion will take in as many new countries as possible.

Kwasniewski said that by continuing its expansion, NATO will become an "exporter of security" throughout Europe.

Havel stressed, however, that the Visegrad countries should, and intend, to maintain strong ties with those EU and NATO applicants that do not make it into either organization immediately. "There are other countries that will not be invited in the near future into NATO or the European Union. This will happen perhaps at a future point. But these countries must not remain forgotten. We feel it is our obligation, based on our experience, to offer them a partnership and to maintain contacts," Havel said.

Havel cited Kwasniewski's recent initiative, made in Riga, calling for closer regional cooperation among Central and Eastern European countries that are NATO members and those that are seeking entry. Kwasniewski said today it is important that countries that do not make it into NATO this time around do not feel "like their neighbors have hopped onto a speeding train and they are left on the station platform with not even a bite to eat."

All three presidents agreed that since regional cooperation is an important component of international relations within the EU, organizations such as the Visegrad Group will continue to have meaning in the years ahead.

Havel, who will leave office early next year after two terms as Czech president, was both hosting and attending his last Visegrad summit. He expressed his thanks and gratitude on behalf of the Czech people for the assistance given by both Hungary and Poland in the wake of this month's catastrophic floods in the Czech Republic. The floods caused extensive damage and claimed 14 lives.