'Eastern Partnership' could lead to enlargement, Poland says
Poland and Sweden have officially tabled proposals for an "Eastern Partnership" between the EU and its neighbours Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine - with Poland presenting the deal as a path toward EU membership.
"It's time to look to the east to see what we can do to strengthen democracy," Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt said on Monday (26 May), after presenting the project to the rest of the EU club with his Polish counterpart, Radoslaw Sikorski.
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According to Mr Sikorski, the eastern partnership initiative is tailored to "practically" and "ideologically" strengthen the union's existing neighbourhood policy towards countries that could eventually become EU members, but are held back by "enlargement fatigue" within the bloc.
The minister drew a clear line to distinguish the EU membership prospects of those countries affected by the Polish-Swedish proposal and those involved in the "Mediterranean Union" - a similar, French-sponsored project for countries lying south of the EU.
"To the south, we have neighbours of Europe. To the east, we have European neighbours...they all have the right one day to apply [for EU membership]," Mr Sikorski said, urging the eastern countries to follow the example of the Visagrad Group set up in 1991 by Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic as part of their EU integration efforts.
"We all know the EU has enlargement fatigue. We have to use this time to prepare as much as possible so that when the fatigue passes, membership becomes something natural," the Polish minister said.
The initiative has seen some criticism from countries such as Bulgaria who does not want to see the union's "Black Sea Synergy" - a co-operation scheme for Black Sea rim states - undermined. But the Czech Republic, which will sit at the EU's helm in 2009, has thrown its weight behind the Polish-Swedish plan.
"It goes in the same direction that we want. And we see that the next year, we need to balance. This year, it is a Mediterranean year. So, the next year would be the eastern year," the country's deputy prime minister, Alexandr Vondra, told journalists.
EU-hopeful Ukraine has, for its part, made it clear it is not willing to settle for anything less than EU membership.
"We believe that the initiative of the Eastern partnership should envisage a clear EU membership perspective to those European neighbours of the EU who can demonstrate the seriousness of their European ambitions through concrete actions and tangible achievements," said a statement issued by Ukraine's foreign ministry on Monday.