Meeting in Brussels, EU foreign ministers adopted a statement instructing the bloc's executive arm, the European Commission, together with the EU's foreign-policy coordinator, Javier Solana, to examine how the three countries could be included in the program. The time frame provided for the analysis is also remarkably short. EU diplomats say they expect a report -- and possibly a decision -- by May.
Neither Patten nor other EU officials were willing to venture into more detailed analysis of the implications of the decision. One diplomat told RFE/RL the bloc is purposely pursuing a strategy of "deliberate ambiguity." He said the EU will not be drawn on how far the three countries could move on the path toward integration with the EU, or indeed, whether eventual membership is a possibility.
Outside the remaining three candidate countries, two distinct groups currently mark the opposite ends of the spectrum populated by EU hopefuls. One -- the countries of the western Balkans -- have been told they are guaranteed membership as soon as their preparations are deemed sufficient. They were deliberately left out of the Wider Europe framework last summer. The other comprises the countries of the southern Mediterranean, for which membership has been explicitly ruled out. They are, however, covered by Wider Europe.
The rest of the countries in the Wider Europe program have been offered the prospect of full participation in the EU's internal market and its so-called four shared freedoms -- those pertaining to the movement of goods, capital, services, and, eventually, people. The president of the European Commission, Romano Prodi, has dubbed this strategy "everything but institutions," meaning that participation in EU decision making is not a presently envisaged goal of the Wider Europe project.
Some of these countries, like Ukraine and Moldova, have received certain indications that the door to membership is not closed. However, their membership -- if the idea were to receive explicit support from EU member states -- would be a long-term possibility and decades away.
These countries must await the completion of the current enlargement process, and an ensuing debate on what constitutes "Europe" and where its borders lie. This debate will be of seminal importance. Article 49 of the current Treaty of the European Union says that "no European country" can be denied membership.
In the meantime, the EU will use the Wider Europe framework to promote its laws and standards, and channel substantial aid grants to the countries involved.
Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan are now likely to be elevated to the status of participants in Wider Europe. Much will depend on their ability to benefit from what is on offer. EU officials have in recent months expressed grave doubts in this regard, and last night Patten was keen to discourage excessive ambition. He said the three countries must begin by creating the conditions for handling basic aid funds:
"There are a number of implications of such a change. One of them is clearly budgetary. We will want to be able to spend rather more than we are in the southern Caucasus, which would involve some readjustment of funds. But obviously we want to see in the first place the new [and] very welcome administration in Georgia starting to get on top of its problems, and we will hold out a hand of support as they do that," Patten said.
There is little doubt the South Caucasus has Georgia and its "Rose Revolution" to thank for the breakthrough. Until the recent events in Tbilisi, EU officials routinely suggested the region was too remote to merit closer EU attention and would have to await Turkey's membership before inclusion in the Wider Europe framework could be seriously considered.
Hence, at least in the short term, the entire region's EU-related ambitions stand and fall with Georgia's success. Should the country's parliamentary elections later this spring disappoint, or the promised reforms fail to take effect, they could easily take the EU's fledgling enthusiasm for the South Caucasus with them.