The commission paper builds on a concept first unveiled nearly a year ago. Although it has undergone some changes, the premise of the strategy remains that those neighbors willing to share EU values and respect its vital interests will be offered closer links.
Presenting the paper today, EU Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen promised political dialogue, economic cooperation -- and possible eventual integration -- as well as wide-ranging aid for infrastructure projects, research, environmental projects, and the like.
Verheugen summed up the EU's goals as follows: "The final objective is very clear. As [Commission President] Romano Prodi has put it earlier, we want to create a 'ring of friends.' We want to create a neighborhood in which we can develop the same level of political and economic stability that we have already achieved in the enlarged European Union. This is strategically in our interest, and we believe it is also in the interest of all our neighbors."
Today's paper envisages "actions plans" for the quick development of ties with seven frontrunners -- Ukraine, Moldova, Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Jordan, Morocco, and Tunisia.
The European Commission says the seven were picked because they already have in place functioning partnership agreements with the EU.
The action plans will be made public in early July, after the EU's June summit gives the commission strategy its formal approval. Officials say no changes are expected to be made in today's paper.
One country conspicuous in its absence from EU ambitions for closer ties is Belarus. Verheugen today said the country's authoritarian leadership has itself to blame for its "isolation."
"The picture is -- I regret to say that -- very gloomy. So far, we don't have cooperation with the government of that country. We don't have contractual relations. There is no dialogue at all. And I think in the present situation there is no way to discuss with Belarus an action plan. We are still at square number one. What we have to do is to support initiatives which would finally lead to political reform and political change in Belarus," Verheugen said.
The EU does not have many options. He said the bloc is trying to help democratic forces in Belarusian civil society find their voice and become more visible. Verheugen said he remains "absolutely without illusions." However, he added, once the "conditions are right," Belarus will be welcomed as a partner country in the EU's new neighborhood project.
Verheugen today rejected suggestions that the Polish government does not support the commission's tough stance vis-a-vis Belarus. He said the commission is in constant contact with Warsaw and that "there is no contradiction."
Russia will not receive its own action plan in July, but Verheugen said today this is simply because the EU-Russia relationship has already developed substantially.
Verheugen also today said the commission supports the inclusion of the three South Caucasus countries in the new neighbors initiative.
"Furthermore, and that is new, we suggest in our strategy paper of today that the countries of the Southern Caucasus -- Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia -- should be included. This is in the view of the commission a necessary and important reaction addressing recent developments in that part of Europe and responding to the clear request which we have got from the leaders of those countries," Verheugen said.
The commissioner, however, poured cold water on the ambitions of the leaders of EU partner countries who have hoped the new neighborhood program could be a stepping stone towards accession.
Verheugen appeared to contradict suggestions made in recent years by Commission President Prodi and other high EU officials that once the present round of enlargement is over, a further debate on the "borders of Europe" will follow. This debate is necessary to decide which countries have a right to membership, as the bloc's founding treaty stipulates all "European countries" can join.
Verheugen ruled out such a debate for the foreseeable future, however:
"We do not foresee a debate about the borders of Europe. I think it makes no sense. For the time being, what we can do is we can clearly define the borders of the European Union. For the time being, it is obvious that for a relatively long time to come, the western border of the former Soviet Union will be the eastern border of the European Union, with the exception of the Baltic countries, which are already members of the EU," Verheugen said.
He said the Balkan countries, headed by Croatia, will all be absorbed.
Verheugen said Turkey's ambitions are well known, too, and its membership remains possible. The commission will decide in the autumn whether to launch accession talks with Ankara.