EU external relations commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner plans to ask EU member states to speed up efforts to ease visa restrictions against the bloc's easternmost neighbors, and to open their markets to their goods. The hope is that the two measures would help the ENP meet it stated objective of facilitating economic integration and good relations with the enlarged EU's new neighbors.
The commissioner intends to pitch her ideas during informal talks by EU foreign ministers from March 30-31 in Bremen, Germany. The plan will also be touted at the EU summit in June.
Speaking in Brussels on March 29, Ferrero-Waldner acknowledged that neither idea is likely to be met with open arms by EU members -- with whom final decisions concerning the ENP rest.
"How can they feel closer to us if we keep them at [an] arm's length, so to speak, with complex and sometimes very expensive visa procedures?"
But Ferrero-Waldner argues that unless the EU opens up to its new neighbors, the bloc will fail in its efforts to improve its relations with them.
"Building better people-to-people contacts with our partners is in many ways, I would even say it's the litmus test for the Neighborhood Policy," she said. "But the real issue is enabling our neighbors to engage with us more easily. How can they feel closer to us if we keep them at [an] arm's length, so to speak, with complex and sometimes very expensive visa procedures?"
ENP members Ukraine and Georgia are next in line to ink visa-facilitation agreements with the EU. Russia, which does not belong to the ENP, has already done so, adding some urgency to the equation.
The other major element in Ferrero-Waldner's initiative to bring new life to ENP is to push for better market access for neighbors' goods. Improved trade, she says, should be at the heart of the new policy.
"The core of our strengthened ENP is, of course, improved access to the European Union's internal market," Ferrero-Waldner said. "And our long-term vision is [that] of a 'Neighborhood Economic Community.'"
Ferrero-Waldner expects the ENP to eventually develop into a free-trade area. For the time being, she argues, EU states should focus on dropping barriers to the products that are of greatest importance to the blocs neighbors. While acknowledging the sensitivity of the issue for some EU member states, she believes that the potential benefits "far outweigh the problems."
The ENP countries in the Black Sea region (Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, as well as Armenia and Azerbaijan) are likely to be the first to benefit from the European Commission's attempts to strengthen the policy.
On April 11, Ferrero-Waldner plans to unveil proposals for closer EU cooperation with those states, as well as Russia and Turkey -- which border the sea but do not belong to the ENP. EU officials say getting the two large regional powers to participate is seen as crucial by Brussels.
At the Bremen meeting, the European Commission will also push other ENP-related proposals relating to supporting good governance, investment, and cooperation in the environmental end energy spheres.
Next Stop: Central Asia
Ferrero-Waldner says that the commission will also be looking beyond "the immediate neighborhood" to Central Asia.
The commissioner was part of an EU delegation that held talks in Astana, Kazakhstan, on March 28 with representatives of all five Central Asian countries.
Current EU president Germany is working on the bloc's first comprehensive Central Asian strategy and is likely to borrow elements from the ENP.
The new Central Asian strategy is expected to be unveiled at the EU's June summit.
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