Researchers in Eastern European countries hoping to join the European Union are to be allowed to take part in projects funded by the EU's Fifth Framework Programme, as part of Brussels's strategy to prepare former Eastern Bloc countries for membership.
In return, under a series of association agreements signed with the EU, Eastern European governments are to open their projects to scientists from the EU member states, where they match the fields covered by the ¤15 billion (Pounds 9.7 billion) framework programme.
The countries affected are Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia, as well as Cyprus, which also wants to join the EU.
Their research institutes, universities and businesses will now be able to participate in the Framework Programme under the same conditions as organisations from existing member states. This means they will have to contribute financially to join projects and share their discoveries.
The programme's research topics range from the environment to nuclear energy, transport and industry. It will run until the year 2002, when it will be superseded by a Sixth Framework Programme.
A European Commission statement said: "This opening-up to the East marks a significant extension of the European research area - for the 150,000 or so researchers in the candidate countries and for researchers in the EU alike, these agreements mean greater opportunities to form partnerships and benefit from each other's scientific and technological potential."
The deal means that, for the first time, Eastern European countries will help pay for a European Union programme. It would, said the commission, lay the groundwork for improvements in public administration and private sector standards. Both have to be improved for the former communist countries to join the EU.