"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.

Georgi Gotev