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Caucasus: EU Commissioner Tours South Caucasus To Explain 'New Neighborhood' Offer

Janez Potocnik, a junior EU commissioner working with enlargement commissioner Guenter Verheugen, today begins a four-day tour of the South Caucasus. He will meet the leaders of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia to talk about the EU's recent decision to include the three countries in its "new neighborhood" policy.

Brussels, 5 July 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Janez Potocnik is a junior commissioner. But he is by far the highest-ranking EU official to tour the South Caucasus region in recent years.

As a commissioner for a new EU member state, Slovenia, Potocnik works with the enlargement commissioner, Guenter Verheugen. Verheugen is in charge of the EU's "new neighborhood" program, which offers closer ties to some EU neighbors.

Although not directly responsible for the new neighborhood program, Potocnik fully represents the views of the European Commission.

He will spend this week traveling to Georgia (5-6 July), Azerbaijan (6-7 July), and Armenia (7-8 July). Potocnik's visit will emphasize the EU's renewed interest in those three countries. Following Georgia's "Rose Revolution" last year, the EU was quick to bring them into the new neighborhood policy. The formal offer was finalized on 14 June.

Jean-Christophe Filori is a European Commission spokesman. He explained to RFE/RL today what the offer will mean for the three countries: "The next steps are to consider the possibility of setting up a so-called action plan with those three countries -- setting the [reform] priorities they should address. And, on our side, offering an approximation with the European Union. That, as you know, could eventually -- but in the longer term -- lead very far toward a share in the internal market, for instance, or [alignment] with several EU policies, like environment or [energy and transport] networks."

Filori said Potocnik will tell the three South Caucasus governments that they could eventually have a voice in Europe.

Potocnik will not offer precise details of the financial aid likely to accompany new neighborhood membership. EU member states are still debating the contents of the bloc's next budget for the years 2007-2013.

But EU officials say Potocnik will reiterate the bloc's willingness to take a more active approach to the region's many conflicts. The bloc will not act as a mediator. But it will use incentives inherent in closer ties to foster compromise.

Filori says this strategy has proved successful elsewhere: "Take, for instance, the example of Romania and Hungary, the issue of the Hungarian minority. Through a very early and intense political dialogue, we [found] a solution. And we really hope that with this prospect of getting closer to the European Union we will also have the possibility of a much better political dialogue with [the South Caucasus] countries."

The EU promotes its new neighborhood policy as distinct from bloc membership but offering many of the same benefits.

Filori said the EU is not likely to discuss anytime soon a further EU expansion that would bring countries like Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan into the bloc: "We can never say never, of course -- we will have to see. What we're trying to do now is to set the prospect for the foreseeable future. And in the foreseeable future, we have an approach allowing for much closer involvement of those countries in Europe, and a much closer involvement of the EU in those countries -- much closer relations. It would be a first step. Let's seize this offer first."

The EU has made it clear that it will consider developing relations with the three countries on the basis of individual merit. So far, Georgia has emerged as a clear leader.

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