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Merkel Sets Out Vision For EU Presidency

Chancellor Merkel speaking in Strasbourg today (epa) January 17, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Setting out Germany's priorities for its EU Presidency, running from January to June of 2007, Chancellor Angela Merkel today gave the clearest indication yet that the terms of the EU's Neighborhood Policy (ENP) are about to be fundamentally changed.

Merkel told the European Parliament in Strasbourg that the EU needs to approach the ENP with more "creativity" -- and start to think of it as a long-term alternative to membership.

"The Neighborhood Policy is a reasonable and attractive alternative [to membership]," Merkel said. "And we will, during our presidency, especially develop such a neighborhood policy for the Black Sea region and Central Asia."

Merkel said European tolerance must make no allowances for political or religious extremism.

Ever since the inception of the ENP in 2003, EU officials have been at pains to underscore that the policy takes no stand on the participants' possible membership aspirations.

Mixed Signals

The EU's eastern neighbors were earlier heartened by German moves to "decouple" the region from the southern Mediterranean area -- which is also an ENP target, but one for which the EU has explicitly ruled out any membership prospects.

However, the inclusion of Central Asia in the ENP -- whose countries are also not EU candidates -- must now come as a disappointment for countries like Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova.

Merkel today revisited Germany's long-standing preoccupation with Russia. She said a partnership with Russia is in the EU's "strategic interest" and must be developed "as broadly as possible." Merkel noted energy relations must be central to such a partnership, but made no reference to the recent Russian oil supply outage following a dispute with Belarus.

Merkel sought to balance her message however, noting that good relations with Russia cannot be achieved at the expense of concerns over rights and democracy.

Russia And Energy

"We say clearly and plainly: we need dependable ties with Russia -- it is the only way trust can grow," Merkel said. "And at the same time we must not, of course, ignore issues such as the media, civil society, or Russia's conflicts with its neighbors."

Merkel said Germany will do "everything it can" to get talks on a new partnership agreement with Russia under way before the end its presidency in June. Plans to launch negotiations have been stymied by Poland, which has vetoed them in an attempt to gain leverage in its agricultural-trade dispute with Russia.

Merkel dedicated the better part of her speech to identifying and outlining the key European values that she says will guide the work of the German presidency -- and should inform the bloc's development on a larger scale.

She singled out Europe's "manifoldness" as the EU's key characteristic, and traced its successes to freedom. Merkel then summarized the key aspects of the European concept of freedom.

The Limits Of Tolerance

"The freedom to speak one's mind freely, even when it does not please others," she said. "The freedom to believe, or not to believe. The freedom of entrepreneurship, the freedom of artists to create their own work on their own terms. Europe needs such freedom like air to breathe."

Merkel said that to make most of its diversity, Europe has also come to value another closely related good, that of tolerance. Tolerance of difference is crucial for the existence of a heterogeneous society -- but it must not be equated with an absence of firm convictions.

Merkel said European tolerance must make no allowances for political or religious extremism.

She said she wants to enshrine these fundamental ideas in the EU's constitution, rejected in 2005 by France and the Netherlands, but which Germany is seeking to revive in June, probably in an abridged format.

"It is in the interest of Europe, the member states, and its citizens to bring this process to a successful conclusion by the next European parliament elections in the spring of 2009," Merkel said.

EU Expands Eastward

EU Expands Eastward

To view RFE/RL's archive of coverage related to EU expansion, click here .

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