BRUSSELS -- After weeks of fierce internal debate, EU leaders have put their seal of approval on a new outreach program for ex-Soviet neighbors called the Eastern Partnership.
There had been doubts that Belarus would ultimately be included in the program alongside the five other intended target countries -- Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan.
The Czech foreign minister, Karel Schwarzenberg, speaking for the current EU Presidency, said after the summit that Belarus "is a country that should be in the Eastern Partnership."
"There was a very intensive debate on the Eastern Partnership and there were, of course, very different views," Schwarzenberg says.
"Nevertheless, we reached agreement, and this is important progress, and I consider it a big victory not only for the concerned states but, above all, for the European Union because it will have good partners as its neighbors," he said.
This means the EU has decided to extended to Minsk the benefit of the doubt for the time being -- despite its deeply problematic rights record.
The EU still has yet to decide whether to invite the country's autocratic leader, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, to the Eastern Partnership's "launching summit" in Prague or Brussels on May 7.
Schwarzenberg said that whether Lukashenka is invited would depend on the behavior of the Belarusian regime "in the coming weeks."
Diplomats say the Netherlands resisted an immediate decision on the issue. The Dutch Prime Minister Jan-Peter Balkenende warned that if Lukashenka is invited -- and turns up -- he is liable to be subjected to the same treatment meted out by EU leaders to Zimbabwe's ruler Robert Mugabe in 2007. Then, the EU agreed to lift travel restrictions on the dictator to allow him to attend a summit in Lisbon, Portugal, but criticized him sharply during the meeting. -- and publicized that fact afterward.
The EU leaders' endorsement of the Eastern Partnership project is intended to signal a new phase in the bloc's engagement with the countries of the former Soviet Union.
The summit statement says the countries are of "strategic importance" to the EU. Correspondingly, the EU promises to promote stability and prosperity in the region and holds out the prospect of closer "political association and economic integration."
The initiative, first conceived last year, became a matter of urgency for the EU after the Russian-Georgian war in August. Today's declaration on the Eastern Partnership does not mention Russia by name. But EU politicians and officials say the project is intended to offer neighbors an alternative to Russian influence.
The EU's more ambitious post-Soviet neighbors, Ukraine and Georgia among them, have long complained the bloc's attempts to engage them have lacked a clear agenda, and have been halting at best.
The summit decision is unlikely to fully assuage concerns in Kyiv and Tbilisi. The EU offers the six countries dialogue and cooperation on the basis of joint decisions, but "without prejudice to the decision making autonomy of the EU." There is no mention of a membership prospect. Instead, visa-free travel and free trade are identified as the only tangible goals for the partners.
Much of today's debate among EU leaders focused on finer points of wording, with Germany and Spain forcing the bloc to tone down a promise of eventual visa-free movement for partner country citizens, and blocking an attempt by Sweden and like-minded countries to get the EU to say it is offering the six Eastern neighbors "European integration."
The final summit statement now says that what is on offer is "further economic integration."
'Platforms' For Cooperation
Broader cooperation will be founded on four "platforms" -- democracy, good governance, and stability; economic integration and convergence with EU policies; energy security; and contacts between people.
The summit declaration says leaders of the EU and the six partner countries will meet every two years, and foreign ministers once a year. Unlike the Union for the Mediterranean, a parallel EU outreach drive set up last year for its southern neighbors, the Eastern Partnership will not have permanent institutions.
EU leaders also said they will earmark a further 600 million euros for the Eastern Partnership. During the current EU budget cycle running from 2007-2013, the bloc's eastern and southern neighbors stand to collect 11 billion euros in aid -- with two-thirds of the sum going to the south.
The statement says "shared values, including democracy, the rule of law, respect for human rights," as well as the "principles of market economy" will be at the core of the partnership. But EU officials admit the conditionality involved is weaker than that of an earlier initiative, the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP), which still excludes Belarus.
Counterweight To Moscow
Pushed to explain the difference between the Eastern Partnership and the ENP, EU officials say the new partnership program is a "multilateral" forum -- indicating the EU's recognition that it needs to engage the region as a whole if it is to provide a credible counterweight to Russia.
However, the Eastern Partnership is not expected to change fundamentally the way the EU interacts with its neighbors on a day-to-day basis.
In future, as in the past, rights abuses and other infringements of what the draft EU declaration refers to as "shared values" will be addressed bilaterally, within the framework of cooperation treaties between the EU and the individual countries.
The Eastern Partnership project is not intended to supplant or significantly modify the EU's involvement in the region's crises. Diplomats say bilateral links, efforts channeled through international organizations such as the United Nations and the OSCE, and direct contacts with Russia -- a key player in any regional conflict -- will remain the mainstays of EU diplomatic action.