Germany and Poland join up on EU foreign policy
Germany and Poland, as well as the Czech republic and Sweden, have put forward joint ideas on how to handle post-Soviet countries, in what some diplomats are calling a "new axis" in EU foreign policy.
The four nations sent an unofficial paper on the so-called Eastern Partnership scheme to EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton on 15 January.
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The text contains four proposals.
It says the EU should boost relations with individual countries covered by the scheme (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine) if they excel in pro-democratic reforms.
It calls for steps to create a free trade area between the six states and the EU on the model of the European Free Trade Association with Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland.
It says EU foreign ministers should regularly talk about Eastern Partnership developments in their monthly meetings.
It also calls for "more visibility" for the scheme by creating an "Eastern Partnership label" - a special EU logo to be displayed on projects, such as new roads, funded by the programme in the target countries.
Poland would like to go further.
Its foreign minister, Radek Sikorski, on Monday (18 February) said the EU should give a promise of future accession to the six countries at an Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius in November, just as it did to Western Balkan states at a summit in Thessaloniki, Greece, in 2003.
Lithuania also hopes to take the step, if not for the whole group-of-six, then at least for Moldova, its most pro-EU member, as a positive signal to the others.
But despite the gaps in ambition, Germany's signature on the January non-paper is a sign it has left the bloc of enlargement-sceptical EU countries.
It is also a sign that Chancellor Angela Merkel is less wary of confronting Russian interests.
Germany in the past sided with Belgium, France, the Netherlands and southern EU members in keeping post-Soviet states at arm's length.
"The Netherlands does not consider the Eastern Partnership a gateway to EU membership," a Dutch diplomat told EUobserver on Tuesday.
Describing the German position, an EU diplomat the same day told this website it is not against giving post-Soviet states an EU perspective, so long as this is done on a "differentiated, country-by-country basis" instead of the Thessaloniki model.
"Germany and Poland are very close to each other on this. Germany is also sympathetic to the Eastern Partnership countries. It sees merit in the Polish idea that the Union has to give eastern countries a certain perspective which incites them to move closer to the EU," the source said.
Another EU diplomat noted: "There is a new axis in EU policy toward the east - Germany-Poland-Sweden."
He added: "The German position is changing. They are playing a much more active role in the Eastern Partnership … They are trying to play a bridging role between its very energetic supporters and the sceptics."
For her part, Ashton is also keen for Vilnius to make a difference.
"There is a general ambition to give a new momentum to our relationships with eastern countries, for the Vilnius summit to be a kind of milestone," her spokeswoman, Maja Kocijancic, said.
She noted that progress depends on what happens in the post-Soviet states in the next nine months as much as it does on the internal EU debate, however.
"Look at Ukraine, there is an idea to sign an association agreement and a free trade pact in the margins of the summit. But in order for this to happen, Ukraine must fulfill clear benchmarks [on democratic reform]. The situation is the same with Georgia. If it wants to initial an association agreement, it must do what is necessary," she added.