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The origin of the Central European Initiative lies in the creation of the Quadragonale or Quadrangular which was established by Italy, Austria, Hungary and the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY) in Budapest on 11 November 1989 (two days after the fall of the Berlin Wall). The Initiative had a double objective. From the political point of view it wanted to give a clear sign of overcoming the division in blocks, that had existed for so long in Europe, by re-establishing cooperation links, in sub-regional context, among countries of different political orientation and of different socio-economic structures (Italy, member of NATO and EEC; Hungary, member of the Warsaw Pact; Austria, a neutral country; and the SFRY, a non-aligned country). From the economic point of view, it intended to formulate and develop, in the relevant working groups, specific sectorial projects to be implemented with the goal of a gradual homogenization of the socio-economic structure of the Member States.

The Quadragonale political dimension was able to achieve considerable success in a very short period of time and can be regarded as the first attempt to respond to the request of the former communist countries to approach the Western European institutions. At its first Summit in Venice in 1990, Czechoslovakia was admitted and the Initiative was renamed Pentagonale, and in 1991, with the admission of Poland it became the Hexagonale. The Yugoslav crisis, which started in 1991, severely hampered the functioning of the Hexagonale, but it also proved the vitality and worthiness of the Initiative that managed to survive the dramatic dislocation of one of its founding members, initially by suspending the SFRY and then gradually readmitting the new states emerging on its territory. Thus,  in 1992 the renaming of the organisation into Central European Initiative (CEI) was decided.

Now the CEI counts eighteen Memeber States. Initially established to build up regional cooperation and to promote complementary development among four countries, the Initiative developed into the largest forum for regional cooperation among countries of Central, Eastern and South Eastern Europe. Furthrmore, the extension of its membership has reofcused its pirorities in helping the transition countries and assisting them in their preparation process for EU membership. Thus, throughout the years the CEI has gone through a transformation process  from being an organisation predominantly oriented towards policy dialogue to a project-oriented organisation.