According to the principles laid out in the EU's own founding document, the Rome Treaty, they are legally eligible to apply for EU membership, should they so wish.
True, in the short term, the Eastern Partnership idea may not go beyond tinkering with the practical workings of the existing European Neighborhood Policy (ENP), currently a catchall for the EU's various neighbors. But Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski has left little doubt that sooner or later, the entire concept of the ENP must change. As he told his EU colleagues in Brussels on May 26, the EU has "European neighbors" in the east, whereas to the south, there are just "neighbors of Europe."
Many observers agree that Poland and Sweden are forcing the EU to admit the obvious -- that the bloc's eastern neighbors cannot forever be denied a shot at EU membership. Even Germany and France, both skeptical of further enlargement, are coming around to the view that it may serve the EU's interests to acknowledge eastern ambitions sooner rather than later.
European Identity, Aspirations
Michael Emerson, a senior analyst with the Brussels-based Center for European Policy Studies, says Sikorski is essentially stating the obvious.
"Fundamentally, it is uncontroversial that the eastern neighbors -- which are all members of the Council of Europe -- have a certain European identity and aspirations and perspectives, possibly, for some of them," Emerson says. "Whereas that is not the case for the Mediterranean Arab states."
Obvious it may be, but so far, the continental "old" member states -- afflicted as they are by enlargement fatigue -- have been loath to admit this.
Still, this is changing. Frank-Walter Steinmeier, foreign minister of the EU's largest member state, Germany, spoke of the Eastern Partnership with approval on May 26. He said the EU has "every interest" in stabilizing Eastern Europe. He added, however, that that does not necessarily mean preparing its countries for accession.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said after the meeting that "it is no sin to go east and south at the same time." France has so far championed the EU's southern neighbors, securing for them two-thirds of the 12 billion euros earmarked for the ENP between 2007-13. (ENP participants include Algeria, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Egypt, Georgia, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Moldova, Morocco, the Occupied Palestinian Territory, Syria, Tunisia, and Ukraine.) France's role is all the more significant as it will hold the next EU Presidency between July and December.
Major Gesture Toward Ukraine
There are suggestions that France is trying to placate eastern member states in order to win support for its own Mediterranean Union for the southern neighbors, endorsed by EU leaders in March. But there are signs Paris may have more noble motives. Diplomats in Brussels say France is preparing a major gesture during its presidency toward Ukraine, which has long claimed it is more than a mere neighbor.
"During the French presidency, we will be very open, especially for Ukraine, because we would like to get out of this negative position [the EU] had in the past," says Michel Foucher, a former senior French diplomat and currently a member of the Robert Schuman Foundation, a French think tank. "And we think it's important to have a kind of open-door policy toward Ukraine, which is not to make decisions, not prescribe [solutions], but not to exclude [anything], if I may say so."
Ukraine, which is presently negotiating a new partnership accord with the EU, wants an Association Agreement. All new Eastern European member states had Association Agreements with the EU before they were given candidate status.
Foucher said an Association Agreement is one option, adding that Paris at this stage is leaning toward the formulation "privileged partnership." This would evoke uneasy echoes of Turkey's travails, which is being offered just such a designation as an alternative to full EU membership.
But according to Foucher, the idea that eastern neighbors are "European" and therefore theoretically eligible for EU membership is "uncontroversial" in Paris. "The problem," he says -- mentioning Belarus, Armenia, and Azerbaijan by name -- "is the timing and internal political situation" of some of the countries.
Attitudes Toward East Changing
German analysts also bear out the impression that attitudes toward the East are changing on the continent.
Joerg Himmelreich, a senior trans-Atlantic fellow at the German Marshall Foundation, says Berlin sees "no problem" in the idea that Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, and the South Caucasus belong to Europe. He says Germany has acted with caution, however, for fear of upsetting France.
"So far, it was always concern for France, [which caused] Germany to hesitate to pursue a more active integration and accession policy toward the eastern European neighborhood," Himmelreich says. "And it is right, [therefore], that now the Polish foreign minister is taking up this [objective]."
Himmelreich suggests the Polish-Swedish initiative -- spearheaded by Sikorski and his Swedish counterpart, Carl Bildt -- may be viewed as serving as a proxy for Germany's own long-term interests, which Berlin is presently unable to act on.
Himmelreich says the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats in the current German governing coalition are blocking "all of each other's foreign-policy initiatives." The situation is likely to remain at an impasse until the next federal parliamentary elections in December 2009. Himmelreich says Foreign Minister Steinmeier's Ostpolitik is "fading."
Jan Techau, head of the Alfred von Oppenheim-Center for European Studies in Germany, notes the Eastern Partnership initiative addresses a plan left over from Germany's EU presidency in the first half of 2007. At the time, Germany spearheaded the launch of a Black Sea Synergy initiative, designed to engage the eastern neighbors, as well as Russia and Turkey. The idea, however, has stalled.
Both Techau and Himmelreich suggest Germany will at some point overcome its present preoccupation with Russia -- which vies for primacy in the post-Soviet space -- and become more assertive in pursuing its own interests in the East. Himmelreich predicts this will be accompanied by a more active German stance in Georgia.
It seems hardly a coincidence that the Eastern Partnership initiative was unveiled on May 26, the same day EU foreign ministers approved strategic partnership talks with Russia. The Polish-Swedish proposal appears to be part of a larger realignment of the EU's Ostpolitik, which could lead to a more active stance in the future. This seems to involve encouragement by Berlin and Paris for a leading role for Poland among the new member states, even if under some notional Swedish tutelage.
Poland's first test was the normalization of relations with Russia. It dropped its 18-month veto on the EU-Russia talks and negotiated an end to a subsequent Lithuanian veto. In return, Poland is being conspicuously consulted by France and Germany when it comes to contacts with Russia.
After a four-day tour of Russia in mid-May, Germany's Steinmeier met Sikorski for a friendly lunch on May 25. And French President Nicolas Sarkozy was in Poland on May 28, just one day before a visit to Paris by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.