"More funds for more reform". This is the thrust of an EU plan unveiled by the European Commission yesterday (25 May) to respond to the democratic aspirations of the peoples of Eastern Europe and the Arab world.
The European Commission unveiled a fresh neighbourhood strategy yesterday (25 May), proposing to revamp the bloc's relations with countries on its Eastern and Southern borders.
The plans were presented by EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Štefan Füle, EU commissioner for enlargement and neighbourhood policy, on behalf of the EU's new diplomatic service, the EEAS (European External Action Service).
The 20-page document, entitled 'A New Response to a Changing Neighbourhood', will be tabled at the G8 summit in Deauville today, where the EU will be represented by Council President Herman Van Rompuy and Commission President José Manuel Barroso.
The document largely reflects ideas developed recently by Commissioner Štefan Füle in a wide-ranging interview with EurActiv last April.
On the financial side, Ashton and Füle explained that in spite of the economic crisis, on top of the €5.7 billion already allocated for 2011-2013, additional funding of €1.24 billion will be transferred from existing resources and made available to support neighbourhood policy.
In addition, member states in the European Council have backed a proposal by Ashton to increase lending to the Southern Mediterranean by €1 billion over the same period, via the European Investment Bank (EIB).
The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) backed Ashton's request to extend its operations to the Middle East and North Africa, starting with Egypt. Their expectation is that annual lending volumes could reach around €2.5 billion a year by 2013.
"With so much of our neighbourhood in a process of democratic change, this review is more important than ever. It is vital that we in the EU make a comprehensive offer to our neighbours and build lasting partnerships in our neighbourhood," Füle said.
He added that the new EU approach involved a much greater degree of differentiation.
"This is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Increased EU support to its neighbours is conditional. It will depend on progress in building and consolidating democracy and respect for the rule of law. The more and the faster a country progresses in its internal reforms, the more support it will get from the EU," he explained.
'Endowment for Democracy'
The strategy's main novelty is the closer contact it proposes to establish with non-governmental organisations, in an effort to build partnerships with civil society. Concretely, the EU states its readiness to make EU support more accessible to representative groups via a dedicated Civil Society Facility.
In addition, the paper suggests creating a "European Endowment for Democracy" to support political parties, non-registered NGOs, trade unions and other social partners. The name appears to copy the National Endowment for Democracy, a US non-profit organisation financed by Congress, which helped civil societies in Europe's east before and after the fall of the Berlin wall.
The EU also wants to promote media freedom by supporting unhindered access to the Internet for civil society groups and the use of electronic communications technologies.
A group of prominent European People's Party MEPs chose EurActiv to publish a 'non-paper' as a reaction to the Commission's review of the European Neighbourhood Policy.
While accepting the need for a "fundamentally redesigned" European Neighbourhood Policy in light of the Arab revolutions, the EPP MEPs argue for a continued focus on the EU's East European neighbours. They propose numerous measures for the bloc's Eastern partners, including increased funding, more comprehensive free trade agreements and visa liberalisation.
The non-paper was prepared by EPP MEPs Jacek Saryusz-Wolski (Poland), György Schöpflin (Hungary), Andrey Kovatchev (Bulgaria), Eduard Kukan (Slovakia) and Traian Ungureanu (Romania). They are each foreign affairs coordinator or leader of their respective national delegations.
European Parliament President Jerzy Buzek welcomed the Commission Communication on the review of the European Neighbourhood Policy and called for closer partnerships with the EU's neighbours.
"I welcome the Commission's new approach on the European Neighbourhood Policy. I am particularly happy with the new tools announced today, such as the European Endowment for Democracy, linked to already existing EU programmes in this field. It is essential to ensure that our actions are effective in an ever changing and interdependent world," he said.
"It is therefore with the spirit of true solidarity that we need to accompany our neighbours of the Southern Mediterranean and the Eastern neighbourhood countries. This will benefit all of us," Buzek stated.
The Greens/European Free Alliance group welcomed the "direction" of the Commission's proposals but stressed that many questions remained.
Commenting on the proposals, Green foreign affairs spokesperson Franziska Brantner said:
"This review represents a welcome attempt to point the EU's Neighbourhood Policy in the right direction […] However, many questions clearly remain. It remains unclear how the proposed differentiation and conditionality on democracy and the rule of law will work in practise, what criteria will be used, who will monitor the implementation and what will happen if the conditions are not met."
"High Representative Ashton and Commissioner Füle are promising 'more for more' (more aid for more reforms) but there must also be a 'less for less' if authoritarian regimes try to turn the clock back. The EU also must do more to promote social justice in its neighbourhood," Brantner stated.
Green expert on the Eastern European neighbourhood countries Werner Schulz added:
"The Eastern Partnership must not become an afterthought of the EU's Neighbourhood Policy. In the context of fragile democratic development, the EU must prioritise supporting and strengthening civil society in our Eastern European neighbourhood. This means building up existing structures like the civil society forum. There is an open question as to whether additional funding should also be channelled to the eastern Neighbourhood Policy."
The centre-left Socialists & Democrats group welcomed what it described as "the ambitious communication".
S&D Vice-Presidents Hannes Swoboda and Véronique De Keyser said: "This communication is born at a unique moment. The Arab Spring opens up new vistas in our relations with southern neighbours and presents a special opportunity to express our solidarity with and support for the aspirations of the people in the countries concerned. This opportunity must not be missed."
"We fully support the 'more fund for more reforms' approach of the communication. We all know that genuine political, economic and social reform is essential for development and stability in our neighbourhood. It is in our interest to have a sound economic and democratic development in the Southern and Eastern neighbourhood. We now expect from the member states to live up to their commitments," they added.