BRUSSELS -- Closer ties between the European Union and its eastern neighborhood -- Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan -- have been slow to get off the ground.
When the one-year anniversary of the bloc's Eastern Partnership program, providing for closer bilateral links, passed on May 7, journalists were hard-pressed to find a single EU official
prepared to talk about the once-lauded initiative.
But the European Commission has been more upbeat about its Eastern Neighborhood Policy (ENP), which groups the same six countries as well as 10 other countries on the EU's southern flank (Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Occupied Palestinian Territory, Syria, and Tunisia).
"More trade, more aid, more people-to-people contacts" was the commission's own take on the achievements of the ENP over the past five years.
On the strength of this, Stefan Fuele, the EU's enlargement and neighborhood policy commissioner, today declared the policy an unmitigated success for both the EU and its 16 closest neighbors, saying relations had improved "spectacularly."
"The ENP has helped European Union neighbors to transform their countries," he said. "It confirms that when we use the right policy mix and tool kit, we can work as a transformative soft power spreading stability and prosperity beyond the enlargement area."
Doubtful On Ukraine Reforms
However, on closer inspection, the ENP's record is less than straightforward.
Fuele himself admitted as much at a press conference in Brussels today, although he believes that despite intensifying pressure from Russia, the EU has not yet irrevocably sacrificed the opportunity to tie the eastern neighborhood firmly to itself, as some analysts suggest
The higher our partners' ambition, the stronger our response.
Questioned on the recent U-turns of Ukraine's new administration under President Viktor Yanukovych, which have resulted in a rapprochement with Russia, Fuele appeared doubtful that Kyiv would maintain its commitment to reforms demanded by the EU.
"I think the [question] is to what extent the Ukraine leadership is committed to the reform package which is compatible with the European agenda," he said. But Fuele reiterated his belief that eastern neighbors can have good relations with both the EU and Russia. He noted that the EU itself had repeatedly called Ukraine to improve relations with its neighbors.
Addressing Georgia, Fuele said he remains convinced that Tbilisi remains on course toward aligning itself to EU legislation, although free trade with the EU "might not be fully compatible with ultra-liberal ideas" pursued by the Georgian government. Political links between Brussels and Tbilisi have also noticeably cooled over the past year.
Overall, Fuele noted, partners remain keen to enact EU-compatible legislation but its implementation continues to "lag behind," particularly on such "sensitive" political issues as fundamental freedoms and human rights.
The EU's chief lever remains money. Combined, the eastern and southern neighbors stand to receive 1.3 billion euros this year. Ukraine, Moldova, and Morocco will stand to gain the most from the increase in relative terms, Fuele said, having made the best use of EU incentives.
"The higher our partners' ambition, the stronger our response," Fuele said. "Partners like Morocco, Ukraine, and Moldova -- which I just mentioned -- have immediately realized the potential for closer relations and are making significant use of the policy."
But, again, Fuele was forced to note that progress on visa liberalization -- the key desirable for the EU's eastern neighbors -- remains slow, and that, in fact, travel conditions for citizens of Belarus, Ukraine, and Moldova are now more restrictive than they were before their neighbors to the west joined the EU.
Fuele said the ENP remains the "only real tool" for the EU to promote stability around it. He said the policy is "cheaper and more effective" than tackling "spillover effects" from conflicts and instability.
The EU wants to negotiate association agreements with its eastern neighbors offering -- on a formula habitually used by Fuele -- "economic integration and political association."