|EU’s ‘Eastern Partnership’ Aims to Settle Conflict, Boost Trade|
|May 08, 2009|
By Tony Czuczke
The European Union’s Eastern Partnership program, approved yesterday in Prague with six ex- Soviet republics, aims to boost trade, support political reform and ease regional conflicts in an area long dominated by Russia, EU officials said.
EU leaders approved the partnership, worth at least 600 million euros ($803 million) in aid for social and economic programs, to draw Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan closer to European “values.” The partnership members will seek to meet every two years to help bring political and economic stability in the region.
“We just can’t pretend there is nothing to the east of the union,” Czech outgoing Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek said yesterday after the meeting. “These countries have their aspirations."
Moves by the EU to boost influence to the east are facing resistance by a more-assertive Russia. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on May 6 that he hoped the summit would not create new European divisions. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the program to support energy projects, improve border controls, promote small businesses and strengthen government institutions is not aimed “against anyone, also not against Russia.
The project was proposed last year by Sweden and Poland, an EU member since 2004 that abolished communism in 1989. It is also aimed at developing trade and moving the countries closer to visa-free travel to the EU, according to a statement following the Prague summit. Funding will come from the EU and other donors including the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.
The formal meetings, to be held “in principle” every two years, would be led by heads of state or government.
“The European Partnership should not be a renewal of two blocs,” Topolanek said. “It should not be a fight for influence. It should be a pragmatic cooperation of equal partners.
Still, Russian reaction to the Eastern Partnership is “not constructive,” EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said in Prague yesterday at press conference.
Partner countries may ease their way to formal agreements for closer ties to the EU, said European Commission President Jose Barroso said at the same conference.
Russia’s Lavrov urged the EU on May 6 to avoid using the Eastern Partnership to build “dividing lines.” He said he hoped that all European states will “take into consideration” the interests of “all those who are in our common European space.
The EU plans to drum up an additional 350 million euros ($450 million) in aid for the six countries on top of previous promises of 250 million euros between now and 2013. The EU has ruled out offering swift membership to any of the six countries.
“The six countries are certainly not ready to join,” Czech Deputy Prime Minister Alexandr Vondra told journalists in Prague today. “The countries in question have much work to do politically and economically before they can meet the criteria for membership."
“Everyone who wants to lean towards the European values is welcome,” said Swedish Prime Minister Frederick Reinfeldt. “This is a family of values. Human rights, market economy, the rule of law - it is very much what this process will be about."
Nevertheless, reaching out to the countries is “an important signal for the expansion of economic ties,” Klaus Mangold, a member of Germany’s BDI industry lobby, said in an e- mailed statement. They “have a great opportunity to become a link between the EU, Russia and Central Asia.”
“It’s really important for Germany to attend,” said German Chancellor Angela Merkel, speaking to reporters before the summit, “as a country that has major interests” in the region.
Russia’s five-day war with Georgia last August and a temporary shutdown of natural gas pipelines to Ukraine in January that caused shortages in western and southern Europe spurred the EU project
The summit marks a new step to reach out to Belarus, a traditional Kremlin ally. President Alexander Lukashenko, dubbed “Europe’s last dictator” by the former administration of U.S. President George W. Bush, is sending a deputy prime minister and his foreign minister to Prague.
“I’m sorry Lukashenko didn’t come,” said Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko to reporters. “Belarus should be in Europe."
EU governments say they are promoting “the rule of law” in Belarus and agreed in March to extend the suspension of a travel ban on leaders from the country of 10 million, which borders Russia and three EU countries.
“It is a very important agenda,” said U.K. Foreign Secretary David Miliband. “This is building up relations with the European Union. There is unanimous political support across Europe” with the partnership.
Still, the event was marred by the lack of participation by some of the EU’s top leaders, including French President Nicholas Sarkozy, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
Vondra, of the Czech Republic, earlier in the day, criticized the no-shows, saying “it’s really their own responsibility.”
“I would have wished for more,” agreed Ferraro-Waldner as she arrived at the center.
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