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EU: Brussels Tries To Cool 'Eastern Partnership' Ambitions

Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski (right, with Ukrainian President Viktor Yushcenko) wants "European neighbors" to the east (epa) BRUSSELS -- A Polish-Swedish "Eastern Partnership" initiative has run into resistance in Brussels despite receiving broad support from most EU member states.

That resistance -- which comes as a blow to post-Soviet EU hopefuls like Ukraine, Georgia, and others -- was discussed at a high-level European Neighborhood Policy (ENP) conference at the European Parliament on June 4-5.

The European Commission, tasked with managing the bloc's ENP, has appeared eager to block any attempts to upgrade the status of the EU's eastern neighbors to potential membership candidates.

Instead, the commission has been keen to offer what in academic circles is sometimes called a "competing narrative" to the Polish-Swedish idea of a privileged Eastern Partnership.

Instead of recognizing the countries in the east as "European neighbors" -- in the words of one of the backers of the idea, the Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski -- the EU's executive rejects any distinctions with southern neighbors who are explicitly denied membership hopes.

Speaking at the "ENP East" conference, organized by the European Parliament, EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner never used the word "membership." Instead, she spoke of evolving "privileged relationships" between the EU and countries such as Ukraine, which will bring the two sides "closer and closer," building on "shared values" -- in other words, implying an open-ended process.

What was absent in the narrative offered by Ferrero-Waldner was any notion of a direct EU responsibility for the fate of the eastern neighbors -- something that is implicit in Sikorski's acknowledgment that they belong to Europe and therefore will naturally strive for EU membership:

"We do not seek to impose anything, but we want to support our partners' own reform efforts," Ferrero-Waldner said. "That is very important. Because it's about societal changes and we know societal changes have to come from a society itself, but, of course, we can accompany, we can push, we can try to facilitate the process."

Whereas the Polish-Swedish initiative rests on the assumption that it is their "European-ness" that binds the eastern neighbors together, the European Commission prefers an overarching ENP for all neighbors, eastern or southern, making only individual distinctions between the countries.

Ferrero-Waldner said she rejects attempts to impose a "uniform straitjacket" on the region. If the EU's cooperation with its eastern neighbors does have a regional dimension, it is because of shared problems -- rather than a shared future. Energy, transport, and organized crime are at the top of the EU agenda here, according to Ferrero-Waldner.

The Polish-Swedish initiative has "some interesting ideas," she conceded, but still needs to demonstrate it can "add value" to the ENP and its Black Sea Synergy project, launched last year.

Ferrero-Waldner's take on the ENP was clearly not to the taste of Borys Tarasyuk, a former foreign minister of Ukraine, also present at the conference.

Tarasyuk responded by dismissively speaking of the "so-called" neighborhood policy, which he said should be more correctly be called a "policy for Eastern European neighbors."

Tarasyuk also reiterated the long-standing Ukrainian position that the country only tolerates the ENP on sufferance.

"The success of these [ENP] efforts will depend on the EU's ability to maintain a regular and close dialogue with the partner countries -- including Ukraine -- according to the principles of joint ownership," Tarasyuk said. "We believe that the initiative of the Eastern Partnership should admit a clear EU membership perspective to those European neighbors of the EU who can demonstrate the seriousness of their European ambitions through concrete actions and tangible achievements."

Ukraine is currently negotiating an "enhanced partnership" agreement with the EU, which it hopes will bestow it with associate status.

But the arm's-length view had its supporters at the conference. Elmar Brok, a prominent German Christian Democrat deputy and a former chairman of the European Parliament's foreign affairs committee, expounded at length on the need for the EU to consolidate its policies and institutions before it can even begin to contemplate new accessions beyond the current candidates.

Brok said the only answer to the question about the borders of Europe currently is that it remains a "correlation" between the aspirations of the membership hopefuls and the EU's ability to become sufficiently strong internally to be able to handle another enlargement.

Brok said that for this, a "long time frame" is needed. Meanwhile, he conceded that the ENP may need sprucing up to maintain its attractiveness for the EU's neighbors.

"We need something between full membership and the neighborhood policy which would already today allow [partner] countries to demonstrate to their citizens that it pays to be part of this European process," Brok said.

Brok's answer to Tarasyuk and other enthusiasts of further enlargement was to quote Jean Monnet, a one-time French foreign minister and a founding father of the European Union, who liked to speak of "integration through facts." According to Brok, the facts for Ukraine and other eastern neighbors are eventual free trade with the EU, possible visa-free travel, and police cooperation -- all of which will gradually bind them to the bloc.

Brok's views were not universally shared. Marie Anne Isler Beguin, a representative of the French Greens, and the chairwoman of the European Parliament's delegation for Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, argued for a "antechamber" for the eastern neighbors, with an express promise of membership for those who meet the EU's criteria and standards.

"I don't see how without a [membership] perspective countries could integrate more and more and respond to the criteria the EU demands from them," Isler Beguin said.

Calls to bring greater clarity to the eventual aims of the ENP were echoed -- among others -- by speakers representing Georgia and Azerbaijan.