11th Nov 2019

Big names to stay away from Prague summit

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Spain's Jose Luis Zapatero will not attend the Czech EU presidency's "Eastern Partnership" summit on 7 May, with French President Nicolas Sarkozy also expected to stay away.

London and Madrid on Monday (4 May) confirmed that the two countries will instead send foreign ministers. Mr Brown is "firmly committed" to the project despite his absence, the British embassy to the EU told EUobserver, while Mr Zapatero is too busy with a special meeting on unemployment, the Spanish mission said.

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A spokeswoman for the Elysee Palace in Paris said "at this moment" Mr Sarkozy is also not coming. The president is instead scheduled to listen to a report on equal rights in France and attend a World War II commemoration event.

Polish premier Donald Tusk has not confirmed either. The Eastern Partnership summit, disliked by Russia, comes ahead of a potential meeting between Mr Tusk and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in September.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is the most senior EU leader to have signed up so far. Italy's Silvio Berlusconi is also going. Sweden, the Netherlands and Belgium will attend at the top level, despite earlier rumours they might stay away on human rights grounds.

The potential French absence is being linked to the fact that acting Czech Prime Minister, Miroslav Topolanek, skipped Mr Sarkozy's "Mediterranean Union" summit in Paris last year.

"If big countries such as the UK and France decide not to go, it will send the message that the EU is not really serious about this initiative. In a way, it would be a victory for Russian diplomacy," one EU official said.

The Eastern Partnership is a €600 million EU project to forge closer relations with six former Soviet states on the union's eastern border: Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan.

Belarus is to send the lowest-level delegate to the event. First deputy prime minister Vladimir Semashko is hardly known even in Belarus, but Minsk gossip says the energy security specialist may be promoted to prime minister in the coming days.

Moldova - which has no official government following disputed elections on 7 April - is sending acting foreign minister and former ambassador to the EU Andrei Stratan.

The Czech EU presidency said Ukraine Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko will "very probably" come as well as President Viktor Yushchenko, despite long-running personal enmity between the pair.

Senior EU diplomats will on Wednesday finalise the EU's proposed text for the summit's official declaration.

Germany is insisting the document says steps toward visa-free travel will take place "in the long-term," a phrase missing from the original Czech text, an EU diplomat said.

Berlin also dislikes referring to the six states as "European countries," preferring the phrase "countries of eastern Europe" instead. The wording "European countries" echoes Article 49 of the EU treaty, which says all "European countries" are eligible to apply for membership of the EU.

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