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EU: Finland Lays Out Goals For New EU Presidency

Prime Minister Vanhanen speaking to journalists in Helsinki today (AFP) HELSINKI, June 30, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Finland will take over the rotating EU Presidency for six months beginning on July 1. Finnish Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen says the external focus of his country’s presidency of the bloc will be relations with Russia, energy policy, and future enlargement.

At a news conference in Helsinki on June 30, Vanhanen said relations with Moscow will be among Helsinki's key concerns.

Focus On Moscow

Vanhanen said EU leaders will have several opportunities this autumn to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“During our presidency -- with Russia, we will have several occasions to discuss," Vanhanen said. "We will have a summit [in] November, [an] EU-Russia summit [in] November and then in October we have invited President Putin to come to that informal [EU] summit in [the town of Lahti] in Finland.”

Vanhanen said his EU Presidency has two key aims regarding Russia.

First, Finland wants to use the November summit with Russia to agree to talks on a new partnership treaty for after the current EU-Russia Partnership and Cooperation Agreement lapses next year.

Revitalizing The Northern Dimension

Second, Finland wants to revive the so-called Northern Dimension, an EU policy directed at northwestern parts of Russia. The Northern Dimension was established by the EU in the late 1990s, but has been largely neglected by the union’s recent presidencies.

Vanhanen said energy also will be a key topic in EU-Russia discussions. But, he said, Russia’s central position as a provider of energy for the EU will not deter the union from pursuing its search for alternative sources.

“When we’re discussing about the external dimension in energy policy and about energy security, part of that energy security for the European Union is that we must in future also have alternatives, especially when we’re discussing about natural gas," Vanhanen said. "We need pipelines from [the] north, [the] east, and [the] south.”

The Enlargement Debate

Vanhanen said the Finnish presidency will also seek to promote the cause of enlargement in the face of growing opposition among EU publics.

Vanhanen indicated Finland will resist attempts by France and other skeptics to elevate the EU’s own “absorption capacity” to the status of another entry criterion. He said the European Commission will prepare a report for the EU’s December summit exploring the notion.

However, Vanhanen said, “absorption capacity” must be limited to considerations related to the EU’s decision-making capacity and financial relations. Calling for “fair play,” Vanhanen said it must not become an obstacle for applicants that they themselves have no control over.

The Finnish prime minister also offered rare encouragement for those countries in Europe whose hopes of EU membership have seemed to be terminally on the wane since the collapse of the EU constitution last year.

Vanhanen said he understands those countries in Europe seeking to delimit for once and all the future borders of the European Union. However, he said he rejects such calls.

“The answer to this is that we must also consider the countries that may be left outside a possible border, and their people, and their prospects, Vanhanen said. "This is why I think setting down such a border is not reasonable. We must retain this good concept that those European countries that share our common European values and which fulfill the established membership criteria, they must also have the chance of acceding to the Union.”

Turkey And Cyprus

Vanhanen acknowledged his presidency will face difficult decisions on Turkey later this year. He said that if the EU is forced to break off accession talks with Ankara, he would view it as a personal defeat.

EU and Turkish flags flying in Istanbul earlier this month (epa)

The talks were formally launched last October, but they have been poisoned by Turkey’s refusal to recognize EU member state Cyprus or allow Cypriot ships and planes access to its ports and airports.

Vanhanen today squarely defended Cyprus, saying that as an EU member state it had a legitimate right to veto talks with Turkey at any point.

“Our negotiation rules are such that always when we’re going to start, or to open new chapters, we have to make a decision with unanimity inside [the] EU – and so there is always [the] possibility to stop the negotiation," he said.

Vanhanen said the Finnish presidency will attempt to make headway toward resuscitating the EU’s constitution -- the collapse of which has put a question mark on all future expansion. However, he admitted that he “doesn’t know” how the issue could be resolved.

EU Expands Eastward

EU Expands Eastward

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