Representatives of the 27 member states of the EU and six ex-Soviet partner countries are gathering in Prague for an Eastern Partnership launch summit. The Eastern Partnership represents the EU's most ambitious Eastern European outreach effort since enlargement and is seen by most member states as an instrument for counterbalancing Russian influence in the region. RFE/RL Brussels correspondent Ahto Lobjakas offers his perspective on some key aspects of the plan ahead of the May 7 meeting.
What is the Eastern Partnership?
The Prague summit declaration -- whose draft has been seen by RFE/RL -- explains in broad terms that the Eastern Partnership is designed to further political, economic, and social reforms on the EU model, which in turn should contribute to increased prosperity and stability in the region. But, inevitably, the precise goals, the extent of the ambitions, and even the underlying logic of the Eastern Partnership remain contested. The EU's 27 member states have diverging priorities and interests and so do the six partner countries: Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan.
What bearing will the Eastern Partnership have on some of the partners' EU membership aspirations?
The project is faithful to the EU's established stance of studied neutrality on the issue. The summit declaration says the Eastern Partnership will aim to "create the necessary conditions to accelerate political association and further economic integration" between the two sides. It also provides the now standard qualifier that links with eastern neighbors "will be developed without prejudice to individual Eastern Partners' aspirations for their future relationship with the European Union."
What is on offer?
Provided the six neighbors align their relevant legislation with that of the EU and fulfill other conditions, they could eventually enjoy free trade and visa-free movement with the bloc. The precise terms of the offer are still being debated by EU member states and are liable to be finalized only early on the summit day, Thursday, May 7. Germany and a few other western European member states oppose giving the six partners an explicit promise on visa-free movement, owing to domestic fears of immigration and related crime. Southern EU member states have also misgivings about free trade with the six partners, fearing competition to their vulnerable agricultural sectors.
Who is coming to Prague?
At last count, not all the leaders of the 33 countries will make it. On the EU side, France's President Nicolas Sarkozy, Britain's Prime Minister Gordon Brown, and his Spanish counterpart, Jose Luis Zapatero, are reported to be the most notable absentees. The French and Spanish snubs highlight tensions within the EU between some "old" member states and the newer states that champion further enlargement. Among the partners, the presidents of Belarus and Moldova are set to stay away and send junior stand-ins in recognition of misgivings within the EU about their tarnished rights records.
What will happen after the Prague summit?
The summit declaration provides for summit-level Eastern Partnership meetings every two years, punctuated by annual foreign ministers' gatherings. To maintain momentum in the meantime, four "thematic platforms" will be set up, within which "senior officials" will meet at least twice a year. The summit declaration identifies the platforms as "Democracy, good governance and stability; Economic integration and convergence with EU sectoral policies; Energy security; and Contacts between people." Officials in Brussels say the platforms are intended to encourage a habit of open, multilateral debate between the EU and its six partners -- who, it is hoped, will use the forum to air their private grievances.
Where does the Eastern Partnership stand in relation with the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP), launched in 2003?
Technically, Brussels argues, the Eastern Partnership adds value to the ENP by adding a "multilateral" dimension to a "bilateral" ENP. The ENP will guide day-to-day cooperation between the EU and each of the partner countries, and remains the locus from which EU will assess their performances and upgrade relations, as appropriate, by signing "association agreements" with partners. But there is also evidence of EU frustration that the ENP has not produced any tangible results. The Czech Prime Minister and current EU chair Mirek Topolanek writes in the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" on May 4 that the Eastern Partnership will provide a "new level of communication" intended to produce "better results than a weakling neighborhood policy."
What will change after the Prague summit for the individual partner countries?
The short answer is: nothing. To advance links with the EU, each country will have to convince the bloc individually of its suitability. The main forum for this discussion will be the ENP, but also increasingly association agreement talks -- which are currently under way with Ukraine, soon to be launched with Moldova, and with Georgia and Armenia to follow in the slightly more distant future. The process for Azerbaijan has yet to get off the ground. Belarus, on the other hand, will still need to qualify for the ENP first -- which means instituting democratic reforms -- before it can set out on the same path.
What makes the Eastern Partnership different from the Mediterranean Union, the EU's outreach program for southern neighbors?
In a nutshell, the Mediterranean Union is a vehicle for EU development aid, whereas the goal of the Eastern Partnership is to promote political, economic, and legislative convergence with the EU. The southern neighbors get two-thirds of the more than 11 billion euros available to neighbors between 2007-2013, reflecting the relative strength within the EU of its Mediterranean powers France, Spain, and Italy. However, by rejecting Morocco's membership application in the 1990s, the EU conclusively disqualified all southern neighbors from membership. The membership prospects of (most) eastern partners, on the other hand, remain intact -- and especially in the case of Ukraine, Moldova, and Belarus, remain a matter of not "if" but "when."
Where will the Eastern Partnership leave Russia?
Having spurned an early EU invitation to join the ENP, Russia has remained outside the scope of the EU's subsequent eastern outreach. The Eastern Partnership summit declaration will say "third countries" are eligible to participate in specific projects, but EU officials have already ruled out their involvement in the four thematic "platforms." Russia has denounced the Eastern Partnership as a device to secure the EU a "sphere of influence." The EU rejects this, albeit somewhat disingenuously. Czech Prime Minister Topolanek, for example, says when discussing Belarus in his article that the EU will not leave the country in the role of an "eternal satellite," manipulated "directly or indirectly by Moscow." Officials in the traditionally more circumspect Brussels say "elements of the Eastern Partnership" form part of the strategic partnership talks the EU is conducting with Russia.