BRUSSELS -- Next month, the EU is expected to offer six countries an upgrade of its European Neighborhood Policy in a new arrangement it is calling the Eastern Partnership, an initiative tailored as a response to growing Russian assertiveness in what EU officials used to call "the shared neighborhood."
After a meeting on February 23 in Brussels of EU foreign ministers, EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero Waldner said Russia's recent spats with Georgia and Ukraine have forced the EU to react.
"I think that after the [Russian]-Georgian war and the Russia-Ukraine [gas] crisis we see that there is a clear imperative [of] stepping up our game in the eastern neighborhood and therefore we have a crucial interest in political and economic stability [there]," she said.
The Eastern Partnership targets six of the EU's immediate eastern neighbors -- Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and, provisionally, Belarus.
Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, speaking for the current EU presidency, said after the meeting that the first formal discussion of the concept had produced an agreement on its basic aspects.
"There's been a general consensus that the concept of an Eastern Partnership is viable," he said, "and [that] the concluding of association agreements, deep and comprehensive free trade areas, and creating a common platform for issues of mutual interest such as energy security, is the way forward."
The final shape of the project will emerge at an EU summit on March 19-20. It is clear at this stage already that the partnership offer will not include EU membership. The partners will be offered eventual free trade, visa-free travel, and close energy cooperation -- assuming they harmonize their laws with those of the EU's, reform their economies, and demonstrate democratic progress.
The EU will engage its partner countries in a "give and take," Ferrero Waldner said. "Like [I] always said, it offers incentives to perform and to reform. It's more for more."
Cautiously Looking East
The EU will throw in an extra 600 million euros ($770 million) for its eastern neighbors between 2010-13. Between 2007-13, the EU has earmarked 11.2 billion euros for its eastern and southern neighbors. Two-thirds of the 11.2 billion will be spent in the south, one-third in the east. This reflects the balance of power within the EU, where member states interested in closer links with the south have so far dominated.
Draft documents seen by RFE/RL ahead of the February 23 meeting suggest tensions linger within the bloc between proponents of the east and south. Not all are keen on full free trade with the eastern partners, predominantly fearing agricultural competition.
Apart from the south-east division, a cleavage has emerged between member states on the issue of opening their borders to visa-free travel. The draft document says there is "general agreement that mobility must take place in a secure environment" -- shorthand for the requirement that the countries must tighten their border controls and commit themselves to accepting any migrants arriving in the EU illegally from their territories.
The draft makes it clear the EU will discourage "excessive expectations" among the eastern partners with respect to the free movement of workers. This, the document notes, remains an area where EU member states are free to take their own individual decisions.
In another sign of caution, most member states agree no new institutions will be created for the Eastern Partnership. Institutions with a permanent staff and a dedicated budget line are commonly seen within the EU as being a prerequisite for a project's long-term survival.
The Minsk Question
The question of whether to include Belarus promises to be the most controversial aspect of the launch of the Eastern Partnership. Minsk has been long excluded from the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP) owing its lack of democratic development. But there are signs now the EU thinks Minsk has done enough in recent months for President Alyaksandr Lukashenka to be invited to a special EU summit with eastern neighbors in Prague on May 7.
Belarus continues to fall short of the democracy benchmarks set for the Neighborhood Policy. But many officials and diplomats in Brussels believe any upgrade to the ENP aimed at counterbalancing growing Russian influence will fall flat if Minsk is not a participant.
The bloc is also keen to reward and encourage a string of relatively minor concessions made by Minsk since September 2008 which include the release of political prisoners and easing of restrictions on the media.
The EU's foreign and security policy chief, Javier Solana, visited Belarus on February 18-19 in the latest of a series of recently revived high-level contacts between Brussels and Minsk. Diplomats say Solana told EU ambassadors after returning from Minsk that Lukashenka had made it clear Minsk is "looking towards the EU," and had expressed great concern about what he had said is growing Russian pressure.
Lukashenka reportedly told Solana that Belarus's relations with Russia had been better under former President Boris Yeltsin's reign than under Putin. According to EU sources, Solana said he believes the EU should invite Lukashenka to Prague on May 7 with the other eastern leaders.
Some EU officials have indicated that much will depend on whether Belarus will bow to Russian pressure and recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent countries. Lukashenka told Solana the issue of recognition is a legislative matter, with the parliament scheduled to debate it in May -- possibly after the meeting Prague.
Czech Foreign Minister Schwarzenberg also warned Minsk that were it to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the current consensus within the EU to include it in the Eastern Partnership could founder. "It is natural that Belarus [has] a sovereign parliament and the parliament of Belarus has its own decision [to make]," he said, "but if they would recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia it would create a very, very difficult situation for Belarus."
The EU, too, walks a very fine line over Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The main backers of the inclusion of Belarus in the Eastern Partnership believe the stakes are too high for the bloc to baulk even if Minsk were to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Others fear this could cause Georgia to pull out from the project.