A high-level conference on the EU's Neighborhood Policy opened in Brussels today, bringing together ministers and senior officials from all 27 EU member states and the 16 ENP countries and marking a revival in EU interest in its eastern and Mediterranean neighbors.
In the morning, country representatives took to the floor in no set geographical order. In the afternoon, workshops on themes like "Connecting Neighbors" and "Governance and Stability" were styled to apply equally to all.
This drive to display uniformity hides a key rift among the neighbors, as well as the EU member states. It papers over differences between the southern, Mediterranean countries who've been disqualified from EU membership, and eastern ex-Soviet states, most of whom still aspire to join the bloc.
However, those membership aspirations may not be enough.
'All Neighbors Equal'
A key component of the opening speech of the conference, made by European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, was a rejection of regional differentiation.
"By focusing attention on the wider European and Mediterranean area, the ENP has leveraged more support from [the] European Union's member states than [if] we looked at each of our neighbors in isolation," Barroso said.
"And that was the first goal of our policy -- [in order] to leverage more support, to attract more attention, to focus, also, more resources," he added. "Political resources, but also financial resources -- let's be frank [about that]."
Barroso explained that without regional distinctions, the ENP remains free from the vagaries of the "special interests" of different EU members as they rotate the bloc's presidency among them.
The evolving consensus within the EU is clearly skewed against further accessions, partly as a result of previous enlargements.
Correspondingly, the EU is now putting less emphasis on political reforms and rights standards, which are crucial for candidate countries. Political standards were not raised by any of the EU headline speakers today.
Instead, the EU is keen to capitalize on practical matters of mutual interest. Its current priorities for cooperation with the neighbors are economic integration, energy cooperation, increased travel and work opportunities, and increased financial and technical assistance.
EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner underlined the bloc's economic ambitions. "Our vision is of an economically integrated area, which spans the whole of the European Union and its closest European and Mediterranean partners," she said. "An area where goods, services, and capital move freely."
With the EU as the world's largest importer of natural gas and oil, a key part of this vision is energy cooperation.
Both Barroso and Ferrero-Waldner highlighted energy agreements already reached with Ukraine and Azerbaijan and about to be concluded with Algeria and Egypt.
Ukraine, Moldova Disappointed
But not all the neighbors are happy with the way things are going. Ukraine conspicuously failed to dispatch its foreign minister to the conference, only being represented by its EU ambassador, Roman Shpek.
EU officials downplayed the slight, attributing it to Ukraine's upcoming parliamentary elections, but the bloc's diplomats privately acknowledge its significance.
Ukraine has repeatedly made it clear that it only participates in the ENP reluctantly, and does not consider it an "appropriate" framework for its relations with the EU -- as it believes it is a European country and not a neighbor.
Ukraine's sentiments are to a degree shared by neighboring Moldova. The country's foreign minister, Andrei Stratan, today openly criticized the bloc's limited ambitions:
"The proposals presented by [the] European Commission in its report [in December 2006] on strengthening the ENP is already a big step forward, but [one] which still does not meet our expectations," he said.
"We consider that the basis for a solid relationship between the EU and Moldova -- taking into account its unequivocal European integration objective -- could be acceptance in the [EU's] 'four freedoms,'" Stratan added.
Stratan is specifically referring here to the EU's "fourth freedom" -- that provides for the free movement of people. The first three apply to the movement of capital, services, and goods and are part of the current ENP offer.
Each Neighbor Different
Belarus remains outside the bounds of the ENP as long as its authoritarian leader, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, shuns democratic reforms. The country was represented at the conference by a senior civil servant as an observer.
Of the other eastern neighbors, Georgia chose to focus on its strive to get the EU to ease its visa restrictions. Currently, due to an EU-Russian visa-facilitation deal already in force, Russian passport holders in separatist Abkhazia and South Ossetia enjoy easier access to the EU than Georgians.
Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian expressed full satisfaction with the present course of the ENP. His Azerbaijani colleague, Elmar Mammadyarov, said he is also content to work within the ENP framework, highlighting Baku's interest in energy cooperation.
Mammadyarov was the only speaker in the morning session to draw attention to rights standards, saying European cooperation required adherence to European standards and condemned unspecified instances of occupation and ethnic cleansing.
(The ENP is composed of Algeria, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Egypt, Georgia, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Moldova, Morocco, the Palestinian Authority, Syria, Tunisia, and Ukraine.)
GOOD NEIGHBORS, BUT BEST AT ARM'S LENGTH
By Ahto Lobjakas
At long last, its neighborhood is coming back into focus for the European Union. But the constitutional crisis, provoked by the enlargement of 2004 and now seemingly resolved, has left the EU a different place -- and, consequently, the neighborhood, too. The first-ever all-EU and all-neighborhood conference in Brussels on September 3 bore eloquent witness to this.
Before 2004, the predominant view of the incipient European Neighborhood Policy (ENP) was to see it as an extension of enlargement, inspired by it and possibly leading to another wave of accessions in a(n admittedly) far-off future. Unveiling the first ENP blueprint, then-European Commission President Romano Prodi said that the offer to the neighbors would extend to "everything, but [participation in] EU institutions."
Last week, the EU's external relations commissioner, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, told RFE/RL that view had been "too simplistic." Pragmatic economic integration, she said, has turned out to be much more essential than grand political vistas.
The EU now abhors any reference to enlargement in the same breath with the prospects of the neighborhood. Officially, the ENP takes no stand on the issue of accession prospects. But the reality of the EU's focus increasingly belies that interpretation.
Nowhere is this clearer than the increasing lumping of all the 16 neighbors together and preventing any regional differentiation. This has been one of the key messages of the Brussels conference, which contained no regional workshops or speaker lists.
At one level the rationale for this appears perfectly plausible. Differentiation would only provoke an unseemly scramble among the neighbors for patronage and money. It would also pit the "special interests" of the different EU member states against one another, warned European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso on September 3.
But the scramble for the money has already taken place -- and was resolved in the favor of the Mediterranean neighbors. In 2007-13, they get nearly two-thirds of the 12 billion euros ($16 billion) available for the neighborhood.
More importantly from an eastern perspective, identification with the south automatically undermines the membership credentials of such hopefuls in the east as Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia. The Mediterranean countries were to all practical intents and purposes disqualified from EU membership when Morocco's 1987 application was rejected by the bloc on the grounds that the country is "not European."
Regional differentiation could offer the eastern neighbors some comfort, but the larger truth is that today's one-size-fits-all approach accurately mirrors the weight of the consensus among the 27 member states. Further enlargement is anathema for their publics and cannot therefore be pursued.
This has translated itself into a transformation of priorities. The emphasis on common values, democratic reforms, and human-rights standards has given way to a focus on pragmatic cooperation. The bargain is no longer trade and access from the EU for reforms from the neighbors, as before 2004, but EU trade and visa concessions for neighborhood energy and legislative adaptations to ease economic cooperation.
In reality, the eastern neighbors have their patrons in the EU just as the Mediterranean countries do. But the patrons of the east are currently on the losing side, their credibility tainted by the fact that most of them are part of the 2004 intake themselves. Their natural leader, Poland, has frittered away most of its influence in internal EU squabbles with Germany.
And then there is of course the elephant in the corner, Russia. It is not part of the ENP, preferring to look for a special "strategic partnership" with the EU more in keeping with its size and perceived importance. But its shadow on the ENP is long and in some respects eclipses the EU's belief in its own abilities. Russia was not represented at the September 3 conference, but, tellingly, of the two non-EU languages into which the proceedings were translated at the Brussels conference one was Russian (the other being Arabic).
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