The European Commission is to propose pulling the EU`s six post-Soviet neighbours closer to the West by recognising their "European aspirations" and creating a new "European Economic Area." But a draft communique indicates that EU-Russia relations have preferential status, EUObserver reported.
"The conflict in Georgia in August 2008 and its broader repercussions have resulted in increased awareness of the vulnerability of Eastern partners," the draft commission communication on the Eastern Partnership (EP) - seen by EUobserver - says. "There is a sense of urgency among member states as to the need to enhance relations with our Eastern neighbours to support them in drawing closer to the EU."
The new EU policy - first floated by Poland and Sweden last year - proposes signing "Association Agreements" with Belarus, Moldova, Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan in the next few years and to "acknowledge the European identity and aspirations of these countries."
The draft communique underlines that the new pacts, which recall the association treaties signed with Poland or Lithuania prior to the 2004 round of enlargement, do not amount to a promise of future accession. "The conclusion of Association Agreements will be without prejudice to the partners` European aspirations."
But the EP is to contain measures designed to send "a clear and lasting political message of EU solidarity" and to "produce benefits perceived and recognised by citizens of the partner countries."
The moves include establishing "a single deep and comprehensive free trade area, providing the basis for the development of a common internal market, such as the European Economic Area [EEA]," which the EU currently has with Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein.
The future EEA will require the six states to "take over the entire acquis communautaire [the EU`s legal code], including the acceptance of European Court of Justice rulings."
The Eastern Partnership will aim to create visa free travel in the long-term, but to waive the cost of obtaining EU visas more quickly and to set up Common Application Centres in the six countries to help people enter the EU`s passport-free Schengen zone.
On the energy front, memorandums of understanding are to help guarantee EU energy security, leading to "joint management, and even ownership of pipelines by companies of supplier, transit and consumer countries."
The draft communique indicates that Armenia should close its Medzamor nuclear plant and notes EU "concern" over energy infrastructure in conflict zones, such as a Russia-Balkans gas pipeline running through the disputed Moldovan region of Transdniestria.
At the institutional level, the commission is to publish the final version of its EP communication on 3 December, in time for the French EU presidency`s last summit on 11 December to cement the text in its conclusions.
The draft communique proposes holding an "Eastern Partnership Summit" in June 2009 to launch the project. Follow-up meetings of EU and Eastern Partnership foreign ministers are to take place each Spring. "Senior officials" from the "27 + 5(6)" countries are to meet twice-yearly to prepare for the ministerials.
The European Partnership is to raise the EU`s per capita spending in the region from the current ?6 per head to ?12 per head by 2013 and ?20 per head by 2020, compared to the current ?30 per head in the Balkans. The shift will cost ?2.1 billion, atop the lost income of ?75 million per year as a result of waiving EU visa costs.
The Russia question
A brief sentence in the political preamble of the commission`s draft communique indicates that EU-Russia relations will take priority over EU relations with the Eastern Partnership countries, however.
"The Eastern Partnership ...should be seen as complementary to the relations between the EU and Russia that include a dialogue on our common neighbourhood," the draft text states.
The EU already gives Russia privileged treatment compared to other post-Communist neighbours such as Ukraine in trade and visa negotiations, offering to let Russian passenger jets fly in the EU under Russian rules or to change EU visa laws to help Russians travel into the union.
The "25 +5(6)" formula also highlights problems relating to varied democratic standards in the EP states, with Belarus` (the sixth country in the brackets) participation in the scheme under a question mark pending a review of EU diplomatic sanctions against Minsk in March.
The hardline administrations of President Aliyev of Azerbaijan and President Sargsyan of Armenia - where police shot 10 people during post-election protests in March - will make strange bedfellows for the more democratic governments in Georgia and Ukraine.
"Partner countries continue to face similar challenges in developing their democratic institutions," the commission text says, in phrasing that could cause offence to the post-revolutionary administrations in Tbilisi and Kiev.