EU launches Eastern plan in Russia’s backyard

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The European Union yesterday (7 May) launched a plan to foster closer political and economic ties with six former Soviet republics, while attempting to persuade Russia that it is not trying to muscle in on its sphere of influence.

Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, all of which are poor East European and Caspian countries mostly bordering Russia, are suffering from the economic crisis, and the EU is keen to avert political instability in a region that carries all its gas imports from Russia. 

The ‘Eastern Partnership’, with funding of 600 million euros ($799 million), will aim to promote democratic reform, economic integration and energy security in the six states. 

“This is not anti-Russian,” said Czech Deputy Prime Minister Alexandr Vondra, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency. 

“They are our close eastern neighbours and we have a vital interest in their stability and prosperity. This is an offer, not an EU projection of force […] and they are responding.” 

Russian Foreign Minster Sergei Lavrov said on Wednesday he wanted to believe the EU was not trying to build a power base on Russia’s borders. 

“We shared our concerns that there are those who may wish to present the invited participants with the choice: either you are with Russia, or with the European Union,” he told a news briefing after talks with Polish counterpart Radoslaw Sikorski. 

“We appreciated the explanation Mr Sikorski gave that this was not the plan of the Polish as initiators of the programme.” 

EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said there was no thought of that. “This is nothing against anybody, in particular it is nothing against Russia,” he said. 

Free trade areas 

Vondra expressed disappointment that several EU leaders, including Britain’s Gordon Brown and Nicolas Sarkozy of France, were not attending. 

“I would have hoped all EU states would be committed, because it’s in the wider EU interest,” he told reporters. 

The six eastern states are widely different countries with different ambitions on how close they want to get to the EU. 

Countries with solid governance can use the partnership programme to negotiate association agreements with the EU, a form of closer cooperation. These could lead to setting up free trade areas with the EU. 

One concrete point in the plan is the aim of long-term liberalisation of visa rules for partnership countries. Sikorski told the Polish parliament on Thursday that the effectiveness of the project would become apparent only by 2015-2016, once agreements stemming from it had taken effect. He said more funding would be needed. 

Andrew Wilson of the European Council on Foreign Relations, a think-tank, said the EU had to act to help the region deal with problems arising from state weakness and Russian pressure. 

“The ‘eastern neighborhood’ is, after all, next door, and its troubles are already spilling over into the EU,” he said. 

The EU included Belarus – criticised for years for its tough handling of political opposition – in the partnership programme. 

However, President Alexander Lukashenko opted to stay away from the summit, which Czech diplomats have said was part of a gentleman’s agreement to avoid irritating some EU countries. 

Belarussian opposition representative Alexander Kozulin welcomed this. “That is a moral success,” he told Reuters. 

The EU will follow up the meeting with an overlapping energy summit on Friday aimed at opening a “southern corridor” for alternative energy supplies, mainly via the long-planned Nabucco pipeline, which should bring Caspian natural gas to Europe. 

(EURACTIV with Reuters.) 

European Commission President José Manuel Barroso, who represented the EU executive at the launch event in Prague together with External Relations Commisisoner Benita Ferrero-Waldner, stated: "The time has come for a visible step change in relations with our East European neighbour. It's in the EU's vital interest to intensify relations with these countries aiming for political association and economic integration in order to promote more stability and security on the EU's Eastern border." 

"Through the Eastern Partnership, the EU also shows its solidarity with the partners so deeply affected by the consequences of the current financial and economic crisis," he added. 

EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner, responsible for the European Neighbourhood Policy, said: "This partnership is built on common interests and shared values. It is a framework for a long-term relationship and engagement by the EU. The partnership will bring additional support to our eastern partners as they pursue their individual aspirations for closer relations with the EU, and in particular more help in carrying out jointly defined reforms. Our partners' approximation to EU standards in the political, economic and social spheres will bring all of us greater mobility, trade and increased prosperity." 

"Work on the partnership is already up and running, and the first multilateral meetings will be held next month," she added. 

The Eastern Partnership was initially a Polish-Swedish initiative, but was officially taken over by the European Commission in December 2008 and endorsed by the European Council in March this year. 

It aims to complete the EU's foreign policy towards Eastern Europe and the South Caucasus by developing a specific Eastern dimension of the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP). 

Significantly, the initiative is called 'Eastern Partnership' or EaP, and not the 'East European Partnership' as the countries of the region would have preferred (EURACTIV 07/11/08). This is because the Commission had tried to distance itself from the European Association Agreements (EAAs) with Central and East European countries, which contained the perspective of EU membership. 

The Eastern Partnership offers deeper bilateral relations and launches a new multilateral framework for cooperation, according to partner's needs and ambitions, i.e.: 

  • New Association Agreements (for those partners that have made sufficient progress towards democracy, the rule of law, respect for human rights and principles of market economy, sustainable development and good governance); 
  • better economic integration with the EU (with the objective of establishing deep and comprehensive Free Trade Areas); 
  • Increased mobility through visa facilitation and readmission agreements; 
  • Strengthened energy security cooperation, including through support for investment in infrastructure, better regulation, energy efficiency and more efficient early-warning systems to prevent disruption of supply; 
  • improved administrative capacity of partner countries through jointly-decided ;Comprehensive Institution-Building Programmes' financed by the EU, and; 
  • specific programmes addressing economic and social development in the partner countries. 

One innovative component of the Eastern Partnership is a multilateral track consisting of four platforms, bringing the Eastern partners together to exchange experience and information on issues like: 

  • Democracy, good governance and stability; 
  • Economic integration and convergence with EU policies; 
  • Energy security, and; 
  • Contacts between people. 

Five high-profile initiatives ("flagship initiatives") in the framework of the multilateral track will serve member countries' interests via: 

  • a border management programme; 
  • integration of electricity markets, energy efficiency and renewables policies; 
  • an SME facility, 
  • a 'southern energy corridor', and; 
  • a common response to disasters. 

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