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13th Apr 2024

EU swings focus onto ex-Soviet neighbours

Brussels' new neighbourhood policy will try and get ex-Soviet states to catch up with Mediterranean rim countries in terms of pro-EU reforms - but the policy is not up to the job, one of the EU's biggest neighbours, Ukraine, says.

The new-look "European Neighbourhood Policy" (ENP) will see the EU boost its role in eastern issues such as conflict resolution in Georgia and Moldova by getting involved for the first time in multilateral foreign ministers' meetings of nearby post-Soviet states.

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The EU wants to join the Black Sea Economic Cooperation Council as an observer to take part in regular talks between countries such as Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan as well as Russia and Turkey.

Under the ENP, it also wants to set-up new "regular or ad-hoc" meetings with the foreign ministers of Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan as well as Belarus, if Minsk decides to take pro-democracy steps.

In 2007 to 2013, the ENP will spend 32 percent more cash - €12 billion in total - than in the previous EU budget period, splitting spending on a €3.34/per capita basis for the southern ENP states and €3.64/per capita for the eastern countries.

But Brussels will continue to treat Mediterranean and eastern European states the same way in terms of political status (zero recognition of anybody's EU accession hopes) and opportunities for deeper trade integration (the EU is keen to create free trade zones with all ENP states).

The ENP embraces 10 countries in the Mediterranean region - where multilateral talks with the EU began in 1995 in the Barcelona process format - and six ex-Soviet states that currently talk to the EU on a bilateral basis only, with Russia not part of the ENP scheme.

Unveiling the re-vamped ENP in Brussels on Monday (4 December) the European Commission said Morocco, Jordan and Ukraine have been the fastest reformers over the past 18 months, while Algeria, Libya, Syria and Belarus lag in the group having all but opted out.

East now, south later

"Germany is now making a focus on the east," external relations commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said on Brussels' thrust to boost the eastern wing of the ENP in line with the upcoming German EU presidency's policy priorities.

"But the Portuguese presidency [in July 2007] will make a focus on the south, so it's very balanced...the south does not have to fear anything [in terms of losing EU aid]," she added, with the per capita weighting still seeing most ENP cash go south in net terms.

The new eastern European foreign ministers' meetings "should mean a more active EU role for conflict resolution in the region," Ms Ferrero-Waldner explained, adding that Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov has expressed "interest" in her idea.

But she warned the new EU role will be limited to "reinforcing trust and creating the right climate" for rapprochement between, say, Russia, Georgia and Georgian separatists, rather than anything more radical, such as sending EU border monitors to Georgia.

Ukraine underwhelmed

Ukraine's ambassador to the EU, Roman Shpek, criticised Brussels' neighbourhood vision however, saying "the ENP is de-facto positioned as an alternative to enlargement [and as] such contradicts the EU membership aspirations of Ukraine."

"Ukraine cannot accept to be treated in the same way as non-European countries," he stated, adding that in the past the EU has "cherry-picked" the kind of reforms that suit its interests, such as energy, while letting others, such as visas or aviation, stagnate.

"Failing to [address these issues] will see the revised ENP lose credibility in the eyes of Ukrainian society as well as weight in our relations," the ambassador warned, at a time when the new Russia-friendly Ukraine government is exploring various foreign policy ideas.

'Not so sexy'

Meanwhile Georgia, which has recently pushed the EU to send border monitors and to become a formal negotiating partner in UN-led conflict resolution talks with Russia, took a more sanguine approach to the commission's plans.

"We welcome any new EU role in conflict resolution - this could add value. But we will have to wait and see the details and it should not exclude other possibilities [for EU engagement]," Georgia's EU ambassador, Salome Samadashvili, said.

Defending the ENP's stress on long-term political reform instead of direct solutions to urgent problems - such as Ukraine's post-revolutionary future or the Georgia-Russia dispute - Ms Ferrero-Waldner said "Maybe it doesn't sound so sexy, but don't underestimate it."

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