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EU: Finland Prepares For Presidency With Low-Key Approach To East

Erkki Tuomioja (file photo) (AFP) BRUSSELS, June 19, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The EU's rotating presidency will pass to Finland on July 1, and Helsinki will be charged with managing the union's agenda for the following six months. In an exclusive interview with RFE/RL's Brussels correspondent Ahto Lobjakas, Finnish Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja said he sees little prospect during this time for greater EU engagement with eastern neighbors hoping for eventual membership in the bloc. He said Finland's efforts will be focused mostly on getting talks off the ground for a new partnership agreement with Russia.

RFE/RL: EU heads of state and government met for a summit in Brussels on June 15 and 16 to discuss the link between the EU's constitution and further enlargement. They decided that -- apart from Bulgaria and Romania -- none of the EU's neighbors should now expect to join until there is a constitution, which itself is frozen until 2009. Interestingly, during this discussion, no reference was made to the future borders of Europe, though that subject was initially to be part of the debate. Why so?

Erkki Tuomioja: I think it was a deliberate omission, and certainly we did not want to put it [or] emphasize it on the agenda because we do not think it would be in any sense helpful sending out signals that this [or that] country could in theory -- or could never be -- a member of the union. That [would be] sending out false signals and I'm happy that we didn't need to discuss this separately.

RFE/RL: Will Finland raise this issue separately during its presidency?

Tuomioja: No, we will of course have to, of course, conduct as agreed [a] general discussion on enlargement, including this famous "absorption capacity" [EU's ability to integrate new members], but not separately introducing this item.

RFE/RL: Specifically, Georgia has been asking the European Union for greater support. Is the Finnish presidency going to go beyond what previous presidencies have done in terms of helping the country to resolve its conflicts, perhaps by sending border monitors to South Ossetia and so forth?

Tuomioja: It's not for the presidency to decide what happens, but we will continue the EU's engagement with Georgia and [consider] possible help solving conflicts -- the so-called frozen conflicts in the region. And apart from that, all the three southern Caucasus countries are set to finalize the [EU's Neighborhood Policy] Action Plans for [their] stabilization agreements.

RFE/RL: Finland is a neighbor of Russia and obviously, for other reasons too, the relationship is going to be high on the EU agenda. Will the relationship from now on be defined by energy mostly or will Finland bring back other dimensions to it that have been there before?

Tuomioja: I don't think it will be dominated by energy. Energy obviously is an especially important issue and has been placed considerably [higher on the EU agenda] during the events of the last few months, but we will pursue a broad Russian agenda on the EU-Russia relations.

There are two concrete items. [First], the completion of the new framework for the Northern Dimension [a framework for closer cooperation between the EU and northwestern Russia], which I believe will be moving forward without any problems, the negotiations have been conducted in a very positive [manner] and there is a commitment from all parties -- Russia [and] Iceland and Norway included, as well as the [European] Commission on the Northern Dimension.

RFE/RL: Yes, the Northern Dimension is something that Helsinki pressed during its last term in the rotating presidency in 1999. But you note that there is also a second issue for the EU's Russian agenda?

Tuomioja: The more long-term issue is the continuation -- or follow-up to the PCA [Partnership and Cooperation Agreement between the EU and Russia] which [will] run out next year, and there our aim is to finalize the mandate for the negotiations during our presidency so that it could be agreed around November."

RFE/RL: Will you raise the issues of human rights, minority rights, and democracy?

Tuomioja: They are already on the agenda, there is no need to take them away or add anything. We should pursue the agenda as a whole.

RFE/RL: And finally, is the Finnish presidency going to take any action with regard to Moscow's failure to ratify border agreements with two of its closest EU neighbors, Estonia and Latvia?

Tuomioja: Well, there is little action that we can take. Our position is known, the position of the EU countries is known, but it seems that it will take time. The good news though is that even without the ratification [by Russia] of the treaties -- which we all want to see -- business as usual, as normal, is proceeding and the nonratification of the agreement[s] has not prevented some progress, positive progress in Russia's relations with her Baltic neighbors.

RFE/RL: Could the absence of the treaty affect Estonia and Latvia's chances to enter the EU's common borderless Schengen zone?

Tuomioja: Well, yes, but that is not quite on the agenda. But that is obviously one more reason why this treaty should be completed.

Russia And The West

Russia And The West


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