26th Feb 2024

Brussels to project 'soft power' in post-Soviet zone

The European Commission on Wednesday (3 December) underlined that the "Eastern Partnership" policy is not a prelude to further enlargement, while warning Russia to respect its "soft power" ambitions in the east.

"At this stage, we are not in a position to offer prospects of accession," commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said. "We can take the process a long way, up to the status of association, an association relationship is the furthest we can go without starting a process leading to accession."

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  • The EU's "soft power" is transforming post-Soviet countries, Mr Barroso said (Photo: ec.europa)

The Eastern Partnership initiative aims to sign "Association Agreements" with Belarus, Moldova, Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia in the coming years, pulling the six countries closer to the EU via free trade and visa free deals, as well as regular meetings at foreign minister level.

The upcoming Czech EU presidency is to launch the policy at a "27+6" summit next spring, with the EU executive creating a new Eastern Partnership unit in its external relations department, to be led by veteran commission official Janos Herman.

Changes to the commission's original communique on the initiative reflect Mr Barroso's warning against enlargement hopes.

An early draft of the text said the policy "should acknowledge the European identity and aspirations of these countries." But the final communique cuts out the statement, while saying that the "step change in relations [is] without prejudice to individual countries' aspirations for their future relationship with the EU."

The commission has also scaled down Eastern Partnership funding. The early draft suggested €600 million of fresh money up to 2013 and a further €1.5 billion between 2014 and 2020. The final offer comes to €350 million extra up to 2013, with "consideration" of more funds in the next EU budget.

Russian sensitivity

The commission communique also contains a nod toward Russian sensitivity. "The Eastern Partnership will be pursued in parallel with the EU's strategic partnership with Russia," it states.

But the language of the final text is less kind to Russia than earlier drafts, which had said the new EU policy is secondary, or "complementary," to EU-Russian relations.

Russian media in recent days voiced concern over the EU's initiative, with the Niezawisimaja Gazieta on Monday writing that the EU wants to "push Russia into Asia" and Kommiersant on Tuesday saying the Czech EU presidency will downgrade Russia relations after a Russia-friendly French EU chairmanship.

Mr Barroso on Wednesday addressed Russian concerns over EU expansionism, saying the Eastern Partnership "does not aim at building areas of inlfuence, of drawing division lines in Europe."

EU soft power

But he also underlined Brussels' ambition to transform the post-Soviet countries into Western-type democracies and market economies, hitting a rare note of assertiveness in EU foreign policy vis-a-vis Russia.

"The EU is an economic giant that is increasingly becoming a political player and assuming its responsibilities," he said. "This partnership shows what could be called the power of soft power, the ability of the EU to attract others and bring about changes in societies."

"Prosperity and stability in the 21st century willl be brought about by economics, not by missiles; by political dialogue not by demonstrations of force," Mr Barroso added, in implicit criticism of Russia's actions in Georgia.

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