Thursday

21st Mar 2019

Values to form core of EU 'Eastern Partnership'

Promotion of human rights and rule of law in former Soviet states is to form the "core" of the EU's new Eastern Partnership policy, according to a draft EU summit declaration seen by EUobserver.

"Shared values including democracy, the rule of law, and respect for human rights will be at its core, as well as the principles of market economy, sustainable development and good governance," the text says.

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"The Eastern Partnership should provide the foundation for new Association Agreements between the EU and those partners who have made sufficient progress towards the principles and values set out [above]."

EU leaders are set to formally adopt the document, which was drafted by the Czech EU presidency, at a summit in Brussels on Thursday (19 March) and Friday. The text could be changed at the last minute.

Apart from values, the declaration says the region is of "strategic importance" and the EU has an "interest in developing an increasingly close relationship with its Eastern partners, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, the Republic of Moldova and Ukraine."

The inclusion of Belarus prompts the question whether values or geopolitics are paramount in the initiative.

EU diplomats agree that the country's authoritarian president, Alexander Lukashenko, has done little to merit involvement in the policy at this stage. But the EU fears Russia will strengthen its grip on Minsk if it is left out.

The decision on whether or not to personally invite Mr Lukashenko to the Eastern Partnership [EP] launch summit in Prague on 7 May will be taken closer to the date.

"Everyone knows Lukashenko is not the right man in the right place. But as we develop this long-term project, Lukashenko will become less important," a Polish diplomat said.

"Even if no one from Belarus comes [to Prague], it doesn't mean they can't be included [in the Eastern Partnership]. The technical-level co-operation that has already begun with Belarus, the regional projects in the future, these are more important."

The other Eastern Partnership countries are no angels either. Armenian security forces are suspected of killing eight protesters during election violence last year, in which two policemen also died. In Ukraine, the going rate for a seat in parliament is €3 million.

Apart from the largely symbolic Association Agreements, the Eastern Partnership process envisages legal "approximation" and joint "institution building," leading to the creation of a new free-trade zone embracing the 27 EU states and the six partners.

Crucially, the policy would see visa-free travel to the EU for the 76 million people - 46 million of them in Ukraine - living in the region. Steps toward "visa liberalisation" are to be taken on "a long-term perspective and on a case-by-case basis."

The draft declaration rules out the idea of the Eastern Partnership as a back door to enlargement.

"Work under the Eastern Partnership will go ahead without prejudice to individual participating countries' aspirations for their future relationship with the European Union," it says.

Nuts and bolts

In terms of mechanics, EU leaders are to hold joint summits with Eastern Partnership country leaders once every two years. EU and Eastern Partnership foreign ministers are to meet once a year.

The draft declaration does not mention funding. But Polish foreign minister Radek Sikorski on Monday said EU ministers have agreed to give the initiative a modest €600 million up to 2013.

It is unclear whether the €600 million will be new money, or whether €250 million of it will come from the existing EU neighbourhood policy budget and will be re-labelled as Eastern Partnership funds.

The draft declaration gives no nod to Russian sensitivities, unlike earlier proposals by the European Commission.

Russia is not mentioned in the Czech text at all. Commission drafts last year had said the Eastern Partnership should be "pursued in parallel" with EU-Russia relations, or even "complementary" to the Russia relationship.

Correction: the original story said Armenian security forces killed eight people during election protests last year. In fact, 10 people died, including two policemen. The perpetrators of the killings have not yet been identified

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