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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

EU Talks Prepare for Expansion to East

LUXEMBOURG -- The European Union took a big step toward bringing former communist states "in from the cold" at a watershed joint meeting to prepare them for EU membership.

"We must bring Europe together," Germany's Klaus Kinkel said, after chairing a meeting Monday of foreign ministers from the European Union and Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

All six East European countries are banging on the door of Western institutions like the EU and NATO to distance themselves from their former Soviet ties.

Kinkel said there had been broad agreement in areas ranging from crime-fighting to culture, and that the easterners had urged the EU to create a special task force to help them bring their laws into line with the Union's.

Sir Leon Brittan, the European commissioner currently in charge of the EU's eastward enlargement, described the meeting as a "quantum leap" towards future integration.

The easterners must be brought "in from the cold ... from command economy to market economy, from dictatorship to democracy", Brittan said.

It was a bittersweet moment for Brittan, who has so far helped steer the EU's eastern enlargement but was stripped of the responsibility Saturday when jobs were shared out for the new European Commission that takes office in January.

Although both sides are agreed on the need to bring the east into the Union, differences exist over timing and the process. Poland and Hungary have both already submitted applications for membership.

The EU, however, has been reluctant to set out an exact timetable, in part because of the complexity of bringing so many poor economies into the union and in part because of concerns among southern states over a shift in balance towards the north.

France and Spain have argued that eastward enlargement should be matched by a more aggressive Mediterranean policy. This was outlined on Oct. 19 in a European Commission paper, to be discussed later by the EU ministers.