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EU: Commission Prepares 'New Neighborhood' Policy To Reward Eastern Reform

  • Ahto Lobjakas

The European Commission will today unveil its proposals for a "new neighborhood" policy for countries on its eastern and southern borders after enlargement. An advance copy of the document, seen by RFE/RL, says the EU should offer Russia, Ukraine, and Moldova -- among others -- closer economic integration and enhanced political cooperation in exchange for political, economic, and institutional reform based on "shared values." Contrary to widespread expectations, the document does not rule out eventual membership prospects for the bloc's eastern neighbors.

Brussels, 11 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The European Union should in future "reward reform" on its eastern borders, encouraging economic and political process by means of greater financial support, access to the bloc's internal market, political dialogue, and easier travel.

This is the gist of a new policy document to be unveiled by the EU's external relations commissioner, Chris Patten, in Strasbourg later today. A draft copy of the document -- seen by RFE/RL -- notes that political and economic interdependence between the EU and its neighbors to the east and south is "already a reality." It adds that the EU recognizes it has a "duty" toward present and future neighbors to ensure continuing social cohesion and economic growth, to bring down trade barriers, enhance political stability, and support the emergence of the rule of law.

The document takes its cue from an EU foreign ministers' meeting in November when Ukraine, Moldova, and Belarus were identified as the primary targets for an EU "new neighbors" strategy. Relations with Russia, although considered separate, are an inevitable complement. December's Copenhagen summit added the southern Mediterranean countries to the list.

The document says Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia "fall outside the geographical scope" of the initiative "for the time being." The countries of the western Balkans have all been given a membership perspective by the bloc and are not covered by the new strategy.

The situation on the EU's future borders differs from country to country. The EU has signed free-trade agreements with the countries of the southern Mediterranean and now pushes for greater regional integration.

The EU's Partnership and Cooperation Agreements (PCA) with Russia, Ukraine, and Moldova provide for assistance in political and institutional reform, but do not grant preferential trade treatment. The PCA with Belarus was suspended in 1997 and -- the document says -- the EU now faces a choice: "either to leave things to drift" and avoid all cooperation, or "to engage, and risk sending a signal of support for policies which do not conform to EU values."

The "new neighborhood" policy is designed to provide a framework for the development of relations over the next five to 10 years. It is interesting to note that although a number of senior EU officials have in recent months indicated countries like Ukraine and Moldova may never become members of the bloc, the current document says its aim is not to "set the geographical limits of the Union or to exclude eventual membership."

The document does say that accession "has been ruled out" for "noncandidate" Mediterranean partners -- that is, with the exception of Malta and Cyprus. However, as to Ukraine and Moldova, it merely notes that both have "repeatedly expressed their desire to join the EU."

An explanation for the softening in the EU stance may be found in the observation, made in the paper, that the "incentive of reform created by the prospect of [EU] membership has proved to be strong -- enlargement has inarguably been the EU's most successful foreign policy instrument."

Thus, the draft policy paper says, a further debate is needed to determine the "limits of Europe" before a decision on further expansion can be taken.

The new vision offered by the European Commission -- which must be endorsed by the EU's 15 member states before it will take effect -- suggests the EU should offer its neighbors a trade-off. In return for a "stake" in the bloc's internal market and increased development aid, they must commit themselves to wide-ranging political and economic reforms.

Cooperation should be modeled on the EU's existing acquis communautaire -- that is, EU law -- to help establish functioning markets and common standards for products and services.

The EU would also provide its neighbors with aid to help build administrative capacity and lessen the costs of social adjustment.

The document suggests the EU should provide its neighbors with "perspectives for controlled migration" to meet the bloc's growing need for specialist skills. In parallel, longer visas should become easier to obtain and a "user-friendly" system would be established for genuine small-border traffic. In the more distant future, the document says, the EU should be open to examining the possibility of abolishing the visa requirement altogether.

However, for any of this to happen, readmission agreements for third country nationals must first be signed by Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova.

The bloc also offers intensified political dialogue, a "shared responsibility for conflict prevention," and cooperation in fighting crime.

The promise is held out of EU involvement in regional conflict prevention and crisis management, accompanied by a dialogue on its common foreign and defense policies. Moldova's separatist Transdniester region is mentioned as a particularly pressing issue in this context.

Collaboration in fighting crime is something the EU itself clearly needs at least as much as its neighbors. The common tasks enumerated in the document run from terrorism to drug trafficking, trafficking in human beings, the smuggling of migrants, fraud, counterfeiting, money laundering and corruption, as well as combating nuclear and environmental hazards.

Finally, the new strategy also envisages the pan-European integration of transport and telecommunication networks.

The document says assistance to the EU's new neighbors will be "tailored to needs" and differentiated according to individual ability and progress.

The commission makes it clear that considerable amounts of additional financing are needed for the project. It suggests a new "Neighborhood Fund" be created building on the experience of existing aid programs such as Phare and TACIS. It recommends that more grant aid be given to Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, and -- eventually -- Belarus, together with budget support for tackling poverty and social inequalities. The document notes that not all of the money would come from the EU budget, indicating international financial organizations must also play a role, albeit under EU guidance.

The building of new ties must be a "step-by-step" process, the document says, adding that the extension of cooperation and financial benefits must always "encourage and reward" reform. It admits current EU aid policies have not always managed to achieve that end.

Engagement should be introduced progressively "and be conditional on meeting agreed targets for reform." Targets are to be set out in individual "country action plans" containing "clear and public objectives and benchmarks."

In a rare reference to human rights, the document insists that key benchmarks "should include the ratification and implementation of international commitments which demonstrate respect for shared values" as exemplified by the United Nations Human Rights Declaration and standards elucidated by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Council of Europe.

The document says current ties cannot be upgraded to new "neighborhood agreements" before the PCAs currently in force with Russia, Ukraine, and Moldova have been fully implemented.