Hans Van Den Broek is the European Union's commissioner in charge of relations with the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union, Turkey, Cyprus and Malta. Admission to the European Union is a burning issue for as many as 12 countries of the former communist bloc whose governments have made membership in the EU the cornerstone of their foreign policy.

He spoke to Journal of Commerce reporter Milan Ruzicka during his trip to New York to attend the opening session of the UN General Assembly.

Q:The European Union has been studiously avoiding giving the East and Central European countries any date by which it would accept them as members. Is it

because the EU does not have a date in mind?

A:It doesn't know exactly. What it does know is that they will become members at some time in the future; but it does not concern itself with the date.

There can be no doubt that we have the accession preparation well on track. The pre-accession process is taking place on a number of fronts. Firstly, we're helping them with with the adaptation of their legislation, which requires the completion of the process of transformation from central to market economy.

Apart from that, we have what we call institutionalized dialogue at various levels, from official level up to ministerial level, whereby we're inviting them to participate in dialogue on topics of common interest.

Thirdly, we have a regular dialogue with them on foreign policy issues.

These are all examples to demonstrate that we're not speaking with

indifferent third countries but with candidates for membership in our union.

We say as soon as possible. What is as soon as possible? When the political and economic conditions are met on their side - and we're very much promoting the process of adaptation - and on our side when we have put our own house in order through the Intergovernmental Conference scheduled for next year where our institutions are being prepared for enlargement from 15 to 20 to 30 members.

The economic targets that we have in mind are that, in the very first place, the economic reform process must be completed and a sound economic platform for market economy has to be created.

After the Union has adapted its own structures to allow enlargement it will be much easier to determine the base on which the negotiations can take place. If the process of preparation is completed by the year 2000, there is no reluctance within the Union for this to take place.

Q:So there are no dates being discussed?

A:The only thing that has been decided as far as dates are concerned is that there are two small countries - Cyprus and Malta - which have applied for membership a long time ago and which, in economic terms, do not present a tremendous impact as far as enlargement is concerned that negotiations with them would start six months after the conclusion of the review conference.

The conference starts sometime at the beginning of 1996, and we roughly calculate it would take a year to conclude. But I have to say, nobody knows that for sure yet. So the negotiations (with Malta and Cyprus) would start in 1998 or sometime in late 1997.

Whether it coincides with the start of negotiations with other countries, however, is also possible. That can only be assessed at that time.

But let me be more concrete to show you what progress in fact we are making. With most of the countries (in Central and East Europe) we have agreements under which 80 percent of the exports in the industrial sector have already been liberalized. We've a number of sensitive sectors, such as textiles or steel, where restructuring is taking place, but even those will be abolished within two, maximum three years.

Then, you can say their whole industrial production will have free access to our markets.

Q:Yet, they are all running a negative trade balance with the EU.

A: That's not always by definition a negative thing. Why? Because the transition economies can only be successful if they also attract investment. When investments start coming in that means they must import a lot of capital goods and that really has an impact on the trade figures.

Q:Some governments in western Europe, notably France, argue that you cannot enlarge and integrate the EU at the same time. Isn't this a valid argument?

A: Obviously widening and deepening of the Union should go hand in hand. And the deepening aspect will be one of those aspects which is the main topic on the agenda of the IGC conference.

What do we need to do institutionally to allow for the widening is a crucial question. We have to look at the decision-making process, the crucial issues of security and the defense components, what are we going to do to meet the challenges in international crime, terrorism and drug abuse. We call that the third-pillar issues.

There are numerous questions on the table at the conference and the reports on each one of them are now being drafted.

Q:Is Turkey a candidate for EU membership.

A: We are not discussing membership for Turkey at the moment. What we're

discussing is intensifying and deepening our relations through a customs union.

We have negotiated a customs union which now has to be approved by the European Parliament.

The European Parliament has said if we're to enter into such close links with Turkey whereby the customs union would go beyond the economic aspects into the political ones - and here I have to say there is no other third country with whom we have a customs union - we want them (the Turkish authorities) to have a look at the quality of their democracy.

If we want to have this firm link with Turkey, we must then discuss together how we can improve democracy and the rule of law in Turkey and how we can assist in solving the problem with Cyprus. We also have to work very hard on the Kurdish problem and the terrorist problem. I hope that by the end of this year we'll get the green light for the customs union to go ahead. It would be a qualitative leap in our relationship with Turkey.