The initiative, unveiled at an EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels, seeks to reinforce the bloc's ties with its eastern neighbors -- with a view to putting at least some of them on the path to EU membership.
It also reflects growing concerns among the EU's newer member states that the bloc is neglecting its eastern neighbors.
Speaking ahead of the EU foreign ministers meeting at the European Policy Center on May 26, Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski said closer ties with countries like Ukraine and Moldova are hampered by what he called "enlargement fatigue" within the EU.
The EU's current European Neighborhood Policy (ENP) makes no distinction between the bloc's eastern and southern neighbors. (ENP participants include Algeria, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Egypt, Georgia, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Moldova, Morocco, the Occupied Palestinian Territory, Syria, Tunisia, and Ukraine.) Crucially, the ENP is designed to remain noncommittal about countries' future membership prospects.
This is a circumstance Poland wants to change. Sikorski said Warsaw and Stockholm are looking for an "ideological" enhancement of the ENP.
"We in Poland make a distinction between the southern dimension and the eastern dimension [of the ENP] and it consists in this -- to the south, we have neighbors of Europe, to the east we have European neighbors," Sikorski said.
He said that this constitutes "a big difference. These are countries -- Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova -- whose entire territories lie in Europe, and by the provisions of the [EU's founding] Treaty of Rome they all have the right one day to apply, to fulfill the criteria [for EU membership], and, perhaps, to become members."
Meanwhile, the EU's southern member states have secured two-thirds of the 12 billion euros ($18.9 billion) available to the ENP between 2007-13 for North African countries -- although they have already been deemed ineligible for EU membership. France is spearheading efforts to set up a "Mediterranean Union" to coordinate EU cooperation with the southern neighbors.
Sikorski said the Eastern Partnership would be one of the main priorities of the EU's Polish presidency in 2011. But the initiative is likely to kick off even sooner.
Czech Deputy Prime Minister Alexandr Vondra told journalists as he arrived at the Brussels meeting that the Czech EU presidency in 2009 will also work to "balance" the EU's eastern and southern dimensions.
"We support this Polish-Swedish initiative very much," Vondra said. "It goes in the same direction that we want. And we see that the next year, we need to balance. This year, it is a Mediterranean year. So, the next year would be the eastern year."
Grand Bargain Within EU
Diplomats say the EU's larger member states -- who often oppose the smaller "new" states over issues related to the former Soviet space -- are supportive of the Eastern Partnership initiative. France, which will take over as the next EU presidency in July, is motivated by the need to build support for its Mediterranean strategy among the eastern member states. Germany traditionally takes a close interest in the EU's eastern policy, while Britain is traditionally one of the staunchest supporters of continued enlargement.
It also appears the Polish-Swedish initiative is part of a grand bargain within the EU that has seen Lithuania formally drop its objections to an EU-Russia strategic partnership deal. EU foreign ministers have agreed that the long-delayed talks with Russia can begin at the EU-Russia summit at Khanty-Mansiisk on June 26-27.
Significantly, Poland and Sweden led the EU mediating effort earlier this month when Lithuania first stepped in to veto the talks. Vilnius's concerns -- ranging from trade complaints, the status of criminal investigations, and Russia's recent aggressive moves in Georgia -- are now to be addressed in the course of the EU-Russia negotiations.
The Polish-Swedish initiative is unlikely to bring with it an immediate sea change in the EU's eastern policy. Reflecting the weight of the consensus within the bloc, the EU's external relations commissioner, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, said on May 26 that she does not think it is a good idea to introduce distinctions between the eastern and southern neighbors.
Instead, Ferrero-Waldner said the Eastern Partnership initiative would need to show it can "add value" to the existing Neighborhood Policy. "In Eastern Europe, indeed, there are some issues which can suitably be addressed at a regional level -- for instance, on energy, transport networks, maybe cooperation on trafficking, [cooperation] against illegal immigration," she said.
Ferrero-Waldner appeared particularly concerned the new plan could interfere with the EU's "Black Sea Synergy" scheme announced last year -- which also involves Russia and Turkey.
Poland's Sikorski also stressed the importance of practical cooperation, but in a subtly different sense. He said Ukraine, Moldova, and eventually Belarus would be well-advised to follow the example of the Visegrad group, which was set up by Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary to pursue regional cooperation before those countries were granted entry into the EU.
Sikorski noted that while eastern membership hopefuls "cannot change the rules of accession, they can change the perceptions" in the EU if they demonstrate an ability to work together and reform. This, in turn, could stand them in good stead when the EU "catches its breath" and recovers from the current enlargement fatigue.
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