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EU: Prodi Sets Out Vision of 'Ring of Friends,' Closer Ties With Neighbors

The president of the European Commission, Romano Prodi, has set out a vision of closer ties between the European Union and its neighbors. As he puts it, the EU needs a "ring of friends" on its borders. That ring would include Ukraine, Russia, Moldova, and the states of North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean.

Prague, 31 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The Balkans, so often the breeding ground of conflict, are soon to serve as a bridge of peace between the European Union and its eastern neighbors.

That, at least, is the vision of European Commission President Romano Prodi, who says the European Union's next great task is to integrate the Balkans as EU members.

In an article for the Brussels-based weekly "European Voice," Prodi says the path to membership for the Balkans will be long, but that only by offering clear prospects of integration can the EU ensure the stability of the region.

In line with Prodi's comments, the EU's Greek presidency on 28 January presented a set of ambitious plans for the Western Balkan countries, worked out together with the next EU chair, Italy. The plans hold out the prospect of eventual EU membership for all five countries -- Albania, Yugoslavia (Serbia-Montenegro), Croatia, Macedonia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Romania and Bulgaria are already candidates for membership.

Prodi says the Balkans represent a sort of bridge between the eastward enlargement strategy and what he calls the "new proximity policy." He says this new policy must create solid relationships with what will be the enlarged EU's neighbors -- in an arc stretching from Russia and Ukraine, through the Caucasus republics and Moldova, and on to Morocco, Tunisia and elsewhere.

Prodi says the centerpiece of this proposal is a common economic area spanning the EU and its partners, based on the use of the euro as a reference currency, and with similar legislation and interconnected business and cultural networks.

These partners, though nonmembers, would be involved in responses to common threats -- such as terrorism, crime, illegal immigration, and environmental challenges.

Belgian-based independent analyst Stefan Maarteel says it's high time that Brussels acted to create this "ring of friends" on what will soon be its new frontiers: "Talks will have to be held with all these countries separately, to improve the relations with those countries. That's something which has been forgotten for too long, as all the concentration went to the [eastward] enlargement itself."

Another analyst, Heather Grabbe of the Centre for European Reform in London, agrees that Brussels has been slow developing its policy toward countries like Ukraine and Belarus.

"The problem is that, still, for most EU citizens, they are far away countries of which they know little, and they are seen primarily in security terms," she said. "When you look at the actual concrete aspects of EU policy that affect countries like Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, it's all about visas and border controls and so on. There's not an awful lot that is very positive. It's all about protecting ourselves from these countries, rather than engaging with them."

Grabbe notes that the EU has signed various agreements with these countries and has issued various strategy papers for Russia and Ukraine. But in all, she says, they do not amount to much more than promises of eventual trade access, some aid, and some dialogue.

"The EU needs to give real substance to these things because these are countries which do not have a prospect of joining the EU -- certainly not in the short- or medium-term, and probably not even in the long-term, some of them," Grabbe said. "But they are ones which will directly affect the EU's security and prosperity, and with which it needs to engage."

Maarteel says the incoming members themselves can help implement the proximity policy. As he sees it: "Negotiations with the Russians will be very important, and these Baltic countries (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) will always play, I think, an intermediary role between Russia and the European Union."

In his article, Prodi says it will soon be time to think about where the final borders of Europe will lie -- in other words, when the expansion process must come to an end. There has been controversy over the candidacy of Turkey. If Turkey gains admission, as it probably will some years from now, then the EU will border on Syria. Morocco has sought to become an EU member also but has been rejected by Spain, which sees the cultural differences as too great.

But Maarteel points out that attitudes could change if, or when, Turkey is successfully integrated: "Once Turkey has joined the European Union, it will be clear that religion or cultural background of the countries is not a point in choosing which country can be a part of the EU and which cannot. So after Turkey's entrance into the union, I think that these [North African] countries will also start to try to start negotiations [on membership]."

If that is so, drawing the final borders of the European Union may be a long time away.