Neighbourhood Policy : Eu Launches Eastern Partnership to Stabilise Six Ex-Soviet States
"It is in the EU's vital interests to have stable neighbours." Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek summed up in these words the stakes of the Eastern Partnership, launched on 7 May in Prague, between the EU and six former Soviet countries (Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan). These countries should be stabilised and democratised and the economic cooperation should be developed, notably in energy, but without bringing the six into the EU or creating a clash with Moscow, which is mistrustful of what it considers an intrusion into its sphere of influence'. The challenge is immense, particularly in the wake of recent upheavals in the area - Georgia's weakening by last summer's war, the gas crisis of the past winter and the political confrontation at summit level in Ukraine, the riots in Moldova in early April - against the backdrop of a devastating economic crisis. All these events have made the EU aware that "its security and prosperity also depend on the stability of its Eastern partners," noted German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
ASSOCIATION, NOT ACCESSION
According to the declaration adopted in Prague, the partnership aims to "accelerate political association and further economic integration" between the EU and its "Eastern European partners". Each of the six can aim to conclude an association agreement that includes a free trade area with the EU if it is "able to comply with the resulting commitments". These include respect for "fundamental values, including democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms". Several of these countries nonetheless have highly authoritarian regimes and Belarus even has a dictatorship.
According to one diplomat, the EU hopes to see "emulation in these countries for rapprochement with the EU, like what is occurring in the Balkans". The partnership will not, however, offer these six countries, which have very different interests, the prospect of accession. Ukraine, the only state already negotiating an association agreement with the EU, has not given up hopes of joining one day. Its President, Viktor Yushchenko, has not expressed great enthusiasm for the Eastern Partnership. "It's an initial road map with which we have no problem," he declared at the summit.
DEMOCRACY, ECONOMY AND VISAS
The partnership establishes four platforms of cooperation: democracy, good governance and stability; economic integration and convergence with EU sectoral policies; energy security; and contacts between people. In spite of its modest budget (600 million until 2013), concrete projects are promised: border management, renewable energy, financing of SMEs by the European Investment Bank, and so on.
Senior officials meet at least twice a year, for the first time in June. The foreign ministers will gather annually and the heads of state and government every other year. A parliamentary assembly, Euronest, will bring together 60 MPs from the six partner states and 60 members of the European Parliament once a year. The Commission will also develop a forum to support civil society in these countries. "We are going to continue to talk to the opposition in Belarus and Georgia," pledged Angela Merkel.
The EU will also take "gradual measures" to abolish visa requirements, although this is a "long-term objective". For the moment, the Union has concluded visa facilitation agreements only with Ukraine and Moldova. These also include a chapter on the readmission of illegal immigrants. The EU's westernmost member states, particularly Germany, remained firm in the face of the objections by the six to this "visa wall," out of concerns of seeing a wave of illegal immigration.
UNDER MOSCOW'S WATCHFUL EYE
Andrew Wilson, expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations, finds that the EU "is not winning the hearts" of citizens of this region. What is more, "the Eastern Partnership is a step forward but it is a typical EU solution, a technocratic long-term instrument for a region shaken by immediate crises". …