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EU: Commissioner Discusses 'Reality' Of Neighborhood Policy

Benita Ferrero-Waldner (file photo) (official site) BRUSSELS, August 31, 2007 (RFE/RL) --On September 3, the European Union will convene the first-ever meeting with all of the partner countries participating in the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP). Ahead of the meeting, RFE/RL Brussels correspondent Ahto Lobjakas spoke with the EU's External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner.

RFE/RL: What is the purpose of Monday's conference? Is it to give the partner countries an opportunity for critical input into the European Neighborhood Policy, or is it to allow them to exchange views and compare their record?

Ferrero-Waldner: I think the main purpose is, first, that we listen to the partner countries. And I don't only think of critical remarks -- [although] there might also be some critical remarks. But I want to hear [about] their interests and also their ideas about the first results that are there. And a lot of them have seen that, indeed, the neighborhood policy is very positive. Indeed, you know, we are supporting those countries a lot, not only by financial means but also by [sharing] expertise. We give them more possibilities for mobility, visa facilitation, for instance, and so on.

But at the same time, I think it is good that the countries can also benefit from listening to each other. Because they exchange views, they see [what] is interesting for them, [and may think,] "I have not thought yet of this idea, but maybe this is something that in the future will benefit me." So that's the idea. It's a common framework for bilateral relationships that are very differentiated.

"I think we should be open to a debate to see where the European Union stands in the years 2020 and 2030. There might be also the question of frontiers there, but it's certainly not the only question."

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RFE/RL: Looking at the agenda of the conference, one gets the feeling of a very monolithic approach to the neighbors. There's no distinction between the east and the south, for example. Yet the problems and the prospects of the respective groups seem very different. If you take Ukraine, for example, it borders on four EU member states, whereas Morocco is cut off from the EU by the Mediterranean. Do you think the conference might not have benefited from a certain division accommodating the differences between the east and the south?

Ferrero-Waldner: I don't think so, because then we would be, again, in the regional approach that we already have. One [part of this] is the Barcelona process that we do not want to supplant, and, on the other hand, we have just created recently the Black Sea Synergy initiative in order to have another regional approach for the countries of the east. What we want to do here is, on the contrary, to show the different partner countries that we have one common approach for the east and the south, but at the same time in a very, very differentiated, tailor-made way for each and every country -- as we also have been saying from the very outset of the neighborhood policy.

RFE/RL: It is certainly true that nearly all of the neighborhood countries have one problem in common and that is shortcomings in human rights and democratic standards. They are not quite where the EU would like to see them. Looking at the time that has passed since the ENP's inception in 2004, can you point to any concrete examples where the presence of the policy has actually contributed to improving the situation in the partner countries?

Ferrero-Waldner: Absolutely. I would say Ukraine, on the one hand, and Morocco, on the other hand, are certainly two countries where you see that the human rights and democratic standards have certainly been advanced quite strongly. But it is not only on democracy and human rights [that the EU seeks to cooperate] -- it's also on economic development. I will certainly also speak about economic integration on [September 3], because all of these countries have one thing in common: they all want to have relationships with us, with the European Union. And in order to have those relationships they will have to adapt more and more their rules and regulations in order to have better trade with us, with the European Union.

RFE/RL: One criticism often leveled against the ENP when it comes to rights standards is that the EU only has positive discrimination that it can offer. As you said, it can offer trade deals, there is also now a governance facility of 350 million euros [$478 million] to reward reforms, and so on. But there are no real negative sanctions and only offering "positive sanctions" means that it is up to the partner governments to decide whether to improve rights standards to gain extra benefits, or not. And if not, their human rights practices stay as they are. How would you respond to that?

Ferrero-Waldner: It is certainly true that we do not have same leverage as we have with candidate countries, because there countries want to enter into a club with very clear rules, whereas here these countries still remain outside of the club.

Ferrero-Waldner (left) with Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko in Brussels in March (courtesy photo)

But at the same time, we don't think that it is very useful to come with a big stick. I think it is [about] development; it is a matter of evolution. I think the more these countries are working together with us -- but maybe also listening to those countries that are doing a lot of reforms -- the more they will understand that this is the only positive way also for them. It will take time. I am sure that we cannot change the attitude of each and every country overnight, but I think, by evolution a lot can be done.

RFE/RL: French President Nicolas Sarkozy has said -- and he is not alone -- that the European Union needs a debate about its borders in fairly short order. Your colleague, Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn, has said such an early debate would be counterproductive. What is your view on this?

Ferrero-Waldner: First of all, I would like to say that I think the speech of President Sarkozy [on August 27] was a very courageous one. And I think it's great to have such leaders in Europe. And second, Mr. Sarkozy [is] not now [preventing] any more the ongoing negotiations with Turkey, which I think is certainly a very positive step. At the same time, he has asked for an overall debate [led by] this [group of senior political figures]. And I think we should be open to a debate to see where the European Union stands in the years 2020 and 2030. There might be also the question of frontiers there, but it's certainly not the only question. I think the major question will be "How can we make this union much more coherent, much more political?" and with the [future] reform treaty we will go, hopefully, a big step in that direction.

RFE/RL: My final question will return to the past. I'd like to look at whether the concept of the European Neighborhood Policy has changed over time. When it was first floated in 2002, the then president of the European Commission, Romano Prodi, described the offer to neighbors as extending to "everything but [participation in the EU's] institutions." That quotation seems to have lost popularity in recent years. Does that mean that the content of the ENP has subtly changed over time, or would you still say that the policy's limits are "everything, but the institutions"?

Ferrero-Waldner: I think it was maybe a little too simplistic, too simplified. That is maybe what I would like to say. I think we have gone much more into very concrete work, to see what we can really do. Because you see, for instance, the economic integration, which differs also [according to] the level of the different countries, as I said. With Moldova you might have still special, preferential treatment, but with other countries, like Ukraine, we are going for an enhanced agreement [possibly leading to free trade], and with the south we are going for a whole free-trade zone. It depends very strongly on the level, but at the same time, this is what we would like to achieve -- a real possibility to trade with our partner countries. These are things that have not yet been developed when the Prodi commission was there. It was too early. They started with the political idea and I think what President Prodi at that time wanted to do was just to say, "Well, we will give the partner countries a lot, but it will not [extend to admission into] the [EU] institutions." But I think we now say, "What can we offer in reality?" And all the [EU] member states -- and now we are 27 -- have to accept every offer that we [make].

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EU officials discussing enlargement at a meeting in December 2006 (epa)

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