EU sees states in east only as partners

EU sees states in east only as partners

European Union policymakers on Wednesday declared themselves ready to open a “new chapter” in relations with six former Soviet republics but stopped short of offering them a clear path to EU membership...

European Union policymakers on Wednesday declared themselves ready to open a “new chapter” in relations with six former Soviet republics but stopped short of offering them a clear path to EU membership.

The European Commission said that under the EU’s “eastern partnership” initiative, the six countries – Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine – would be eligible for comprehensive free trade agreements, EU-funded programmes to improve their administrative capacity, and gradual integration into the EU economy with legally binding commitments on regulation.

The eastern partnership, first conceived by Poland and Sweden, acquired extra importance in EU eyes in August when war flared between Georgia and Russia over Georgia’s pro-Russian breakaway enclaves of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Alarmed at the sight of Russian armed forces invading the territory of a sovereign state for the first time since the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, EU leaders asked the Commission on September 1 to speed up its work on partnership details.

The plan’s primary purpose is to raise the EU’s profile and reinforce political and economic stability in the area between the 27-nation bloc and Russia – a region that Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian president, laid claim to as a “privileged” sphere of influence after the fighting in Georgia.

“There is no cold war. There should not be any spheres of influence,” José Manuel Barroso, the Commission president, said on Thursday.

“The time is ripe to open a new chapter in relations with our eastern neighbours,” said Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the EU’s external relations commissioner. “The security and stability of the EU is affected by events taking place in eastern Europe and the southern Caucasus.”

Belarus’s participation will depend on better relations with the EU, which in October eased some sanctions imposed on the Minsk government in 2006 on account of its repression of political opponents.

For Georgia and Ukraine, one striking feature of the plan is the absence of any explicit promise that they could one day join the EU – just as Nato decided this week not to advance plans to put the two countries on a formal path to membership of the military alliance.

Instead, the partnership focuses on proposals such as “mobility and security pacts”, under which people from the six countries would be allowed to travel more easily to the EU, so long as more efforts were made to tackle corruption, organised crime and illegal migration.

The Commission promised to study the possibility of easing access to the EU labour market for the six countries. Promotion of regional electricity markets, energy efficiency and renewable energy sources is to be given priority.

A secondary purpose, at least for some northern and east European member states, is to rebalance EU foreign policy by promoting a project that matches the bloc’s Union for the Mediterranean, launched in July.

The Mediterranean union, an initiative closely identified with Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s president, aims to reinvigorate the EU’s relations with its neighbours in north Africa and the Middle East.

By Tony Barber in Brussels, The Financial Times

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