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23rd Feb 2019

Focus

Eastern countries waiting for Poland's 'natural sympathy'

  • Anti-Communist march in Warsaw in 1989: eastern countries expect fellow victims of the Soviet Union to stick up for them in the EU (Photo: Polish foreign ministry)

With events in north Africa having taken up much of the EU's attention over the last six months, the bloc's eastern neighbours are hoping Poland will put them back on the agenda when it takes over the rotating presidency.

Since the democratic uprisings began in January in Tunisia, the EU has been looking south and scrambling to find a response to the new geopolitical situation, to update its policies for the region and to deal with the surge in migrants.

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The developments have compounded a feeling among post-Soviet countries that EU interest in their region is waning.

"It is not a good approach just to put all attention, all resources, in one direction and at the same time ignore some other neighbouring countries, particularly important ones like Ukraine," Ukraine's EU ambassador, Kostiantyn Yelisieiev, told EUobserver. "The Polish presidency will create big chances for Ukraine to have a kind breakthrough in EU-Ukraine relations."

Kiev is gunning to finalise an Association Agreement and a free trade pact with the EU by the end of the year, and crucially before Russian and Ukrainian elections in 2012. But it is frustrated with the multitude of EU "conferences, seminars and roundtables" on "sharing experiences", which result in nothing concrete.

Moldova, previously a Communist stronghold but now considered to have one of the most pro-EU governments in the region, is also hoping for an upgrade in EU ties.

Speaking of a "natural sympathy" between former-Soviet-dominated eastern countries, Moldova's EU ambassador Daniela Cujba said: "Of course we do have expectations and we are looking forward to this [Polish] presidency to start."

Moldova is also pushing for progress on its Association Agreement, to launch of free trade talks and to move ahead on technical issues, such as joining the EU's common aviation area.

The symbolic high point of the Polish calendar will be the Eastern Partnership summit in Warsaw in September.

The high-level event is supposed to breathe new life into the Eastern Partnership - a Polish-Swedish idea born in 2008, but which almost immediately suffered due to lack of interest in Berlin and Paris. The policy aims to keep Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine looking towards the European Union, even as Russia tries to guard its old sphere of influence.

It is hard to find a bright spot in the region.

Armenia is corrupt, inward-looking and tied up in old conflicts with Azerbaijan and Turkey. Azerbaijan is autocratic and in thrall to the oil industry. Belarus is headed by brutal strongman Aleksander Lukashenko. Georgia's democratic credentials are fading. Ukraine continues to flirt with Russia while clamping down on press freedom and Moldova's old Communist elite poses a growing threat to the pro-EU coalition.

"Democracy in Ukraine is in danger," said Polish centre-right MEP Jacek Saryusz-Wolski. "And we are in a profound impasse in Belarus."

"Nobody is denying that lots of the focus, the limelight, is on the south [of Europe]," said Polish EU minister Mikolaj Dowgielewicz.

"[But] what I expect from the [eastern Partnership] summit it that it will be a sort of a date when both sides recognise that this is a very important moment to double their efforts - for the EU to have a better offer and for those countries to say we are committed and we will do more to achieve the things you want us to do."

'European perspective'

The big unspoken issue is the prospect of eventual EU membership.

Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia have actively expressed a desire to join the European Union but they are being held at arm's length by an enlargement-weary EU.

Ukraine, which has flirted with the idea of joining Russia in a customs union with Belarus and Kazakhstan, is the most bullish on this front.

President Viktor Yanukovych in May said that any agreement without "the prospects of Ukraine entering the EU" would be "empty". Yelisieiev said that "people should know why they need to suffer painful reforms" with EU membership being a "light" at the end of the tunnel.

The ambassador noted it should be possible to find "appropriate concrete language" that "could reflect the possibilities, or which could fix somehow the potential perspective for Ukraine to become an EU member in the future."

Moldova - which has no chance of EU entry until it solves the complex problem of the breakaway province of Transnistria is resolved - is also quietly insistent.

"With our own positive internal developments, we are helping a decision [on a European perspective] to be taken," Cujba said.

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A short guide to the Polish presidency

With Poland taking over the presidency of the European Union on 1 July, EUobserver presents a short non-exhaustive guide: Defence, the Eastern Partnership, and the Single Market Act are all on the agenda.

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