PRAGUE (AFP)–European Union nations gathered for landmark talks Thursday with six former Soviet states, aiming to foster stability without angering Moscow or offering anyone the hope of eventual EU membership.
The main goal of the new Eastern Partnership is to “accelerate political association and further economic integration” between the 27 EU nations and Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, according to a draft summit statement.
That kind of language was not expected to assuage Russian opposition to the project which Moscow sees as an attempt to downgrade its own influence in its backyard.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Wednesday warned against the creation of “new dividing lines” in Europe.
However EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana assured in Prague that the Eastern partnership “is not against Russia with whom we also have a partnership”.
Brussels says the new scheme is designed to foster stability in the region and is not handing out the carrot of eventual EU partnership.
“This is not about building spheres of influence, this is not about building competition, this is a language that belongs to the past,” EU commission spokesman Amadeu Altafaj Tardio said.
War and political strife in Georgia, riots in Moldova and political and economic upheaval in Ukraine underscore the need for action, but some of the wind has been taken out of the sails of the Eastern Partnership.
The project was the initiative of the Czech Republic, which holds the rotating EU presidency till the end of next month. It aims to promote good governance in, and closer economic integration with, six former Soviet republics (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine) considered vulnerable to Russian pressure.
But the Czech government has fallen and will be replaced on Friday.
Prague was unable to convince key EU leaders to attend — with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero and Italian counterpart Silvio Berlusconi among the no-shows.
Overall the meeting was turned into something of a semi-summit, with just over half of the 27 EU nations represented by their heads of state or government.
A senior European Commission official said the absences increase the danger of “policy for the East made by countries from the East (of the EU), and a policy for the Mediterranean made by Mediterranean countries”.
The draft shows some of the tensions over the eastward rapprochement, with subtle but key text changes in the final version reflecting the wishes of western Europe — France, Germany and the Benelux countries (Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg ) in particular — not to go too far with the project.
The six partner nations are clearly referred to as “Eastern European Partners” whereas the Czechs wanted to drop the “Eastern” tag.
The reference “long-term goal” was also added to a paragraph on visa liberalization.
No mention of EU membership goals for the six is made, with several EU nations feeling they have enough on their hands with the European aspirations of the Balkan nations.
During France’s term at the EU helm last year, Sarkozy launched a “Mediterranean Union” to bolster ties with countries around the sea’s rim, but that forum has since stalled.
The Eastern Partnership was promoted by Czech, Polish and Swedish concerns that the EU’s political focus had moved to areas where it had little real influence rather than stay on more “European” states.
A brief Russia-Georgia war last August also highlighted the need to look further east, not least because some of the partner countries are key transit nations for Europe’s energy needs.
The EU is also keen to reach out to Belarus after recent progress made on improving democracy under President Alexander Lukashenko, although the man dubbed the “last dictator in Europe” was not attending.
Amnesty International called on the EU to insist that “torture and other ill-treatment cannot be tolerated” from the eastern partners.