EU foreign ministers, meeting in Luxembourg, have held their first public debate on how to shape the bloc's relations with its neighbors after enlargement. Although no general agreement was reached as to what prospects to offer new neighbors, Ukraine and Moldova emerged as surprise early winners. Both were mentioned as membership prospects by a number of EU ministers, although a vocal minority of members made it clear that talk of future accessions will have to be postponed.
Luxembourg, 14 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Although no EU member state today publicly cast doubt on the need to extend the EU's "area of peace, prosperity, and security" as far beyond its borders as possible, few could answer the question of how far or how fast.
Most EU member states agreed during today's unprecedented public debate in Luxembourg that the EU's approach to its new neighbors, whether in the east or south, must be differentiated. In other words, ties must develop according to individual merit, depending on how fast potential partners are prepared to reform themselves and how well those reforms progress.
The most obvious divide rehashed differences over how strongly countries on the southern shores of the Mediterranean Sea should figure in EU plans. Predictably, Italy, Spain, and Portugal led those demanding no let-up in the bloc's "Mediterranean Partnership," which is worth more than 5 billion euros ($5.1 billion) in grant aid between 2000-2006.
Equally predictably, the Scandinavian countries and Britain expressed a strong preference for an increased emphasis on ties with Ukraine and Moldova.
The latter two emerged with surprise gains from today's debate. Contrary to what appeared to be a fairly negative prevailing mood in Brussels over recent years, support for their eventual EU membership was voiced from a number of different corners.
Perhaps most tellingly, the EU's enlargement commissioner, Guenter Verheugen, today reversed the misgivings expressed repeatedly by his boss, Romano Prodi, when he said accession to the EU was a "natural" theme for Ukraine and Moldova.
"It is natural that the question of EU membership is always a topic whenever our ties with Moldova and Ukraine are discussed, and it is true that the door cannot remain closed in the long term."
Verheugen cautioned both, however, saying "greater clarity" was needed first on how the EU can engage them both "credibly and consistently" in the short term.
Significantly, Britain's junior foreign minister, Dennis McShane, used a similar formulation referring to Ukraine. He said it was difficult to see Ukraine with its "great European cities of Kyiv and Lviv" as not being part of the European Union at some stage. But, he said, it was equally difficult to talk seriously with Ukraine while the rule of law is being breached, journalists are being murdered, and the media attacked.
Denmark's foreign minister, Per Stig Moeller, said both countries have membership potential.
At the same time, there was no shortage of skeptics warning that talk of membership for any new neighbors is premature. The German representative advocated a small pause for thought in enlargement talks to allow a newly enlarged EU to deepen its ties. The Netherlands, Spain, and Luxembourg also sounded similar cautionary notes, warning that early talk of membership would send the wrong message.
Swedish Foreign Minister Anna Lindh said EU member states should now swiftly authorize the European Commission to put its strategies for the new neighbors -- including Belarus -- into practice.
"I welcome the [European] Commission's communication (policy paper) about 'Wider Europe,' but now it's time to go from words to deeds and give the commission a clear mandate to develop action plans for, especially, the really new members for Ukraine, for Moldova, and for Belarus, as well as concrete proposals on financing."
This call was seconded by the British representative.
Lindh also said the EU should offer its neighbors quick free-trade agreements -- something expressly supported by Germany and Italy. The Italian foreign minister added that close cooperation with Ukraine should embrace the energy and transport sectors.
EU foreign policy coordinator Javier Solana promised greater EU involvement in attempts aimed at solving the festering crisis in Moldova's breakaway Transdniester region. His promise echoes a recent confidential document drafted by the EU's Greek presidency that suggests the bloc should pick one and only one regional crisis to concentrate on.
Together with Ukraine and Moldova, Belarus also received a clear boost today when EU ministers lifted a visa ban on its leaders in force since November last year. It appears likely that as soon as Belarus opts irreversibly for democratic reforms, it could quickly join Ukraine and Moldova as a long-term EU membership prospect.
The Caucasus got a rare mention in today's debate when Belgian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Louis Michel said the EU's differentiated approach to setting up contractual relations with its new neighbors should take in the three southern Caucasus countries.
The EU's plans for its neighbors do face one immediate hurdle -- money. The bloc's budget cannot be stretched in any meaningful sense before 2006, when the present fiscal period comes to an end. After that, a new agreement will need to be negotiated within the EU, but it is no secret that the current net payers, led by Germany, are reluctant to increase their spending.
Germany's representative today gave his colleagues a glimpse of the shape of things to come, when he noted almost in passing that as EU support schemes for the Mediterranean countries and eastern neighbors -- such as MEDA, PHARE and TACIS -- have been slow to disburse their funds, "perhaps no new money is needed at all."