EU assigns funds and staff to 'Eastern Partnership'
With EU leaders putting €600 million in the pot for the Eastern Partnership, the European Commission is mulling over how to assign personnel to run the new project.
"The means are there for this to start up, that's the most important thing," Czech EU presidency foreign minister Karl Schwarzenberg said in Brussels on Friday (20 March), after EU leaders approved the policy at a meeting dominated by multi-billion euro plans on the economy.
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The Eastern Partnership is to build closer political and trade relations with six former-Soviet countries of "strategic importance" - Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia.
Last-minute debate covered whether to invite authoritarian Belarus President Lukashenko to a special Eastern Partnership summit on 7 May, whether to hold the summit in Prague or Brussels and whether to insert a clear reference to visa-free travel.
"[The invitation] will depend on the behaviour of Mr Lukashenko and the Belarus government in the coming weeks," Mr Schwarzenberg said.
The invitation might be made at a lower political level if Belarus in April recognises disputed Georgia territories South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states, so as not to jeopardise the summit attendance of Georgia leader Mikhail Saakashvili, a Dutch diplomat told EUobserver.
The summit venue will also be decided later, amid an organisational clash with an EU jobs summit the same day. A reference to "visa liberalisation" as a long-term goal went into the official declaration on the initiative.
EU leaders on Friday did not discuss a Polish proposal to appoint a "special co-ordinator" to run the policy, re-iterated by Polish foreign minister Radek Sikorski at a think-tank event on Thursday.
Earlier discussions floated former Swedish prime minister Goran Persson or former UK premier Tony Blair as possibilities. "Blair was considered too senior. But we wanted the kind of person who could call Sarkozy or Merkel and ask for an extra €300 million if needed," a Ukraine diplomat said, referring to the French and German leaders.
The European Commission and most member states are hostile to the idea. "We want the commission to own the project on the EU side," a Swedish diplomat said. "We don't want an external structure that would try to influence the implementer."
Part of the Eastern Partnership work - organising summits every two years and foreign ministers meetings every year - is to be farmed out to the Council, the Brussels-based EU member states' secretariat.
But the other "95 percent" - eight multilateral meetings a year in Brussels at deputy minister level, as well as bilateral talks on Association Agreements, free trade zones and visa regimes - will be handled by the European Commission.
The commission is keen to appoint an internal Eastern Partnership supremo, who will be empowered to negotiate with participating countries and international financial institutions, and to create a new team of officials working exclusively on the scheme.
For the time being, the deputy chief of the external relations department, Frenchman Hugues Mingarelli, and two directors from the commission's existing "Neighbourhood Policy" and "Black Sea Synergy" units are in charge of preparatory work.
The external relations "DG" will run the project in future, but it will pull in high-ranking officials from the energy, economy, justice and education departments to chair the eight yearly "thematic platforms."
"Inside the European Commission we will restructure the unit," external relations commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said. "There will be more funding and staff on this file."