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The Warsaw Voice » Politics » June 11, 2008
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Poland Pushes for New 'Eastern Partnership'
June 11, 2008 By W.¯.    
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A Polish-Swedish initiative presented to the European Union as the EU Eastern Partnership has attracted attention in European capitals and outrage in Moscow.

The joint proposal by Warsaw and Stockholm is aimed primarily at strengthening regional cooperation with the EU's eastern neighbors. It was first presented at a meeting of the 27 EU countries' foreign ministers in Brussels May 26. A two-page document was submitted by the Polish and Swedish ministers, Radosław Sikorski and Carl Bildt. It is to be discussed in greater detail at the upcoming EU leaders' summit on June 19-20.

The plan calls for establishing a forum of regional cooperation between the EU-27 and five eastern neighbors: Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia, and also with Belarus on a technical and expert level. The Eastern Partnership would be based on the existing European Neighborhood Policy (ENP), which means the European Commission would play a central role.

The forum would serve to implement ambitious objectives; the idea is to work towards visa-free border traffic with the neighbors covered by the initiative and to set up a "deepened" free trade zone for agricultural services and goods. The plan also envisages the signing of agreements on cooperation with the individual neighbor countries, like the one the European Commission is currently negotiating with Ukraine. Other plans include projects related to culture and education (such as student exchanges), environmental protection, and energy, each encompassing at least two or three of the countries in the planned partnership.

As envisioned by the Swedes and Poles, the Eastern Partnership would be "neutral" for the EU budget, which means that projects would be co-financed from EU funds only within the funding assigned for neighborhood policies in the budget for 2007-13.

Contrary to the French proposal for a "Union for the Mediterranean," addressed to the EU's southern neighbors, the Eastern Partnership does not envisage a separate new structure. There would only be a special coordinator employed by the European Commission.

As Sikorski said on May 26 in Brussels, Poland is proud to have contributed to the downfall of communism and the unification of Europe. Now it wants its "trademark" to be a drive for the development of values such as freedom and democracy in other countries, especially its eastern neighbors. Prime Minister Donald Tusk first announced the plans at the previous EU summit in March.

To make it easier to gain EU approval for the initiative, the Poles invited Sweden to take part. "We asked Sweden because this is a very experienced country in terms of EU affairs and also because as a country it does not border our eastern neighbors," Tusk later explained.

The prime minister says the project is not directed against Russia, but aims to "support civilization processes" in countries that have voiced European aspirations. Sikorski added that although Russia opted not to take part in the ENP, it could join in some of the Eastern Partnership projects.

Sikorski also said that strengthening the eastern dimension of the European Neighborhood Policy would be a priority of Poland's EU presidency in 2011. "In Poland we distinguish between the EU's southern and eastern neighbors: in the south we have neighbors of Europe, in the east we have European neighbors of the EU that-if they fulfill the criteria-will one day be able to apply for membership," Sikorski said. "We all know that the EU is tired of enlargement. We need to use this time for the best possible preparation, so that when the fatigue has passed, membership can become quite natural."

The Eastern Partnership idea met with a warm reception from European diplomats, both from the "old" EU and new member states that joined on May 1, 2004 or later. "Our thinking is going in the same direction. This year it's a Mediterranean year, so the next year would be the Eastern year," said the Czech deputy prime minister for European affairs, Alexandr Vondra.

"It is no sin to go south and east at the same time," said French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner. Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the EU commissioner for external relations and European neighborhood policy, also assessed the initiative as "realistic," saying that "the European Commission can support this, as it is a regional cooperation initiative."

Moscow took a very different view. Aleksandr Babakov, vice-chairman of the Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament, warned EU countries to consult Moscow on initiatives that encompass Russia's zone of interest. "To maintain the partner-like attitude begun during the Polish prime minister's visit to our country earlier this year, it would be better for such new initiatives to emerge, if not in partnership with Russia, then at least after prior consultation with Moscow," Babakov said. He advised Polish politicians to remember that "in the Eastern European region and-of course-on the territory of the Commonwealth of Independent States, it is not worth ignoring the warranted, fully justified and by now traditional interests of Russia."
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