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EU Grapples With Path Forward For Eastern Neighbors

  • Iolanda Badilitza
  • Ahto Lobjakas

EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn says the strategy "makes sense"

EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn says the strategy "makes sense"

BRUSSELS -- A report has been adopted by the European Parliament that urges the EU to create a new structure for cooperation with Eastern neighbors without early membership prospects.

The document is nonbinding, but some of its ideas are likely to color the ongoing debate on enlargement among EU member states.

EU Commissioner for Enlargement Olli Rehn has welcomed the report, which says the arrangement should mirror the European Economic Area (EEA) that enables Western European countries still outside the EU to participate in the bloc's internal market.

The "European Economic Area Plus," as the European Parliament report calls it, could become another way station for Eastern European neighbors on their long road toward membership.

It would essentially offer them the status currently enjoyed by Norway, Iceland, and Liechtenstein. (Switzerland declined to participate in the plan.) Having adopted somewhere around 70 percent of all EU laws, those countries fully participate in the EU's internal market. The cooperation goes far beyond free trade, as services, capital, and people -- in addition to goods -- can also circulate freely across the territory of the EEA.

Crucially, the non-EU countries have no direct hand in shaping EU laws. Politically, they remain outside of the bloc.

Speaking during debate over the report in the European Parliament on July 9, Rehn said the plan has merits with respect to "countries that are not part of the current enlargement agenda."

"In the face of economic globalization," Rehn said, "it makes sense to extend the European legal and economic space, and thus to make the Wider Europe stronger in terms of [the EU's] 'soft' regulatory power."

The report reaffirms the European Parliament's view that the EU's Eastern neighbors are theoretically eligible for EU membership. However, the report also makes clear that further enlargement must wait until the EU has had time to consolidate.

The author of the report, right-wing German deputy Elmar Brok, argued on July 10 that the EU needs the Lisbon Treaty -- rejected last month by Ireland -- not for future expansion but simply to enable it to cope with the effects of the previous enlargements.

"Ratification of the Treaty of Lisbon is part of [improving the EU's] integration capacity because the Treaty of Lisbon is the preparation for the last enlargement round [in 2004]," Brok said. "We are much too late in preparing for that last enlargement round, and we will destroy the European Union with further big enlargement rounds if we take too many countries in without preparing constitutionally for that."

Brok's report differs -- in subtle and less subtle ways -- from the argument made by the mainly Eastern European proponents of continued enlargement. It praises the recent Polish-Swedish "Eastern Partnership" initiative for upgrading the EU's ties with the bloc's Eastern "European" neighbors. But it opts for showcasing the merits of the rival -- and German-sponsored -- idea of a "Black Sea Union." The crucial difference, Brok's report stresses, is that the Black Sea Union would also be open to Russia and Turkey. The report states bluntly that it seeks Russia's "full involvement" in the scheme.

The report adds that any future EU enlargement strategy must "strike a balance between the union's geostrategic interests [and] the impact of political developments outside its borders." This appears to concede that EU enlargement decisions will consider the interests of forces outside the EU, notably Russia.

The report also puts a heavy emphasis on the EU's integration capacity, which is given a new and elaborate fourfold definition. Thus, any enlargement would be possible only if the EU remains able to pursue its "political objectives," retains "effective governance," has the requisite finances, and has the support of the public opinion for the decision.

Asked if the EU had the capacity to take on five new members within the next five years, Brok said "not under the current circumstances." But he added that changing the circumstances is not just a matter of EU reform, but the initiative that aspiring countries show.

"I think the European Union doesn't have to do so much -- it's what these countries have to do [in order] to fulfill their conditions," Brok said. "It's their role, first of all, how to reform their countries so that they are ready for the European Union."

He said the European Union's responsibility is to "be ready to develop ourselves in a way that we can deal with that, so that there will be no overstretching."

"If we take all the countries who hope to become members of the European Union -- Moldova, Ukraine, Georgia, and all of the West Balkan countries -- in the end, we will be 44 member countries," Brok said. "We always talk about individual countries and that it's not a problem for them to join; but if you see the overall figure, then you see the problem we face."

In redefining the EU's integration capacity, the report appears to veer very near to qualifying existing commitments. That perception was noted on July 9 by Commissioner Rehn, who said Turkey and other countries with firm pledges of membership must not be affected by any moving of EU goalposts.

"For the Western Balkans and Turkey -- [which] have clear membership perspective -- the EU must not impose new intermediate stages before candidacy or accession," Brok said. "This would create doubts about the EU's commitment, thus weakening the necessary incentive for reform."

Most EU Members Seek 'Signal' On Ukraine

Sources in Brussels say most EU states agreed at a meeting last week that the 27-member bloc should send a "clear signal" to Kyiv at September's EU-Ukraine summit that membership is possible in the long term.

Of the roughly 20 countries to speak up during the meeting, only the Netherlands and Belgium objected to such a plan for Ukraine, which for years has bitterly objected to being considered a mere "neighbor" by the EU.

France, traditionally unenthusiastic about further enlargement, has recently softened its stance on Ukraine. As the current holder of the EU Presidency, France will have to adopt a neutral stance.

But Paris appears to have agreed to acknowledging Ukraine's ambitions well before it took over the presidency in July. Diplomats in Brussels and Paris have predicted the EU-Ukraine summit -- to be held 9 in Evian, France, on September -- could see a significant step forward in relations between the two sides.

The EU and Ukraine are currently negotiating a new partnership agreement that could be signed at Evian. Kyiv has made it clear it wants the accord to be called an "association agreement," following past approaches of Poland, the Czech Republic, and the EU's other postcommunist members.

Paris, which briefly flirted with the idea of offering Kyiv a "privileged partnership," a term burdened with unpleasant associations to Turkey's stalled membership bid, appears to have relented to the request. The change of stance could, in part, suggest that French President Nicolas Sarkozy has recognized his country needs to win allies among the EU's eastern member states if it wants to remain a leading voice in the bloc.

Diplomats in Brussels say that unless the few remaining skeptics prevail, the pledge of future membership would be inserted in the text of the new EU-Ukraine partnership agreement. This would be an unprecedented step for the bloc.

In return, the EU is likely to want Ukraine to drop its objections to participation in the bloc's European Neighborhood Policy. Ukraine has been reluctant to participate in the ENP, saying it resents being labeled as a neighbor of Europe rather than a European country in its own right.

The EU, for its part, has always argued that the ENP does not "close the door" on EU membership, but this would be the first time an ENP state was offered a clear membership track. (The development could ultimately prove a benefit to both Moldova and Belarus by setting a precedent for EU border countries.)

Ukraine's EU membership would, in any case, be a fairly distant prospect, with even the country's own officials saying it won't be ready to join before 2020.

In another prospective breakthrough for Ukraine, the EU's executive, the European Commission, has indicated it is prepared to launch a visa dialogue with Ukraine along the lines of ongoing talks with Russia. The talks could eventually lead to the abolition of the EU visa requirement on Ukrainian citizens.
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