The European Union extended its hand to six former Soviet republics: Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia on Thursday at a summit meant to draw them closer into the EU orbit despite Russia’s deep misgivings. Presidents, premiers and their deputies from 33 nations are signing an agreement meant to extend the EU’s political and economic ties.
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Last minute tweaks to the Eastern Partnership summit declaration reveal EU unease over enlargement and immigration, as well as the complexities of old conflicts on the union’s eastern frontier.
An earlier Czech EU presidency text of 29 April referred to the 27 EU states plus Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia as "European countries." It also spoke of "visa-liberalisation."
The latest document, rubber-stamped by EU diplomats in Brussels on Wednesday (6 May), renamed the six as "Eastern European Partners" and "partner countries." It added that the visa move is a "long-term goal."
Germany and the Netherlands forced the changes, concerned that "European countries" sounds too pro-enlargement. The new language on visas is a far cry from pre-April Czech proposals, which spoke of "visa-free" travel.
The tweaks might look unimportant but have serious implications. Polish and Ukrainian officials fear the new country nomenclature dampens Ukraine’s dreams of getting an "EU perspective" in the next two years.
The visa wording may see just a privileged few, such as diplomats or businessmen, one day freely enter the EU, while ordinary people struggle to, say, meet a friend in Madrid or try to build a better life in London.
Meanwhile, Georgia and Azerbaijan failed to push in a clause that the 33 countries should respect each other’s "territorial integrity."
The latest wording speaks of obeying the "principles and norms of international law" – a loose phrase that could see Belarus recognise Georgia rebels in South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states, entrenching Russia’s military occupation of Georgia.
It could also see Armenia maintain military support for the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region in Azerbaijan, limiting EU options for building new gas pipelines in the South Caucasus.
But despite the upsets – French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Wednesday night had not confirmed if he will go to Prague on Thursday – the event will mark a victory for ex-Communist EU states keen to extend EU freedoms closer to Russia.
The Eastern Partnership idea was born during informal talks between like-minded governments in Tallinn in mid-2007. The pace of progress, through European Commission blueprints to EU summit agreements in 2008, has been rapid by EU standards.
If all goes well, the six states’ political elites will in coming years forge new relationships with EU colleagues via abundant meetings. Free trade deals will ease the flow of money. And Europe’s post-Cold War dividing lines will gently erode.
"The summit is just the start of the initiative," a Czech diplomat said. "Moscow is quite negative about the Eastern Partnership. But frankly, that’s a Russian problem. They see the world through a zero-sum lens. We do not."
Costing hearts and minds
The Russian "problem" may not be easy to brush off, however. Russia-linked emergencies – like the war in Georgia or the gas crunch in Ukraine – are already transforming the region faster than any EU policy.
The EU visa wall, its scant help in the cruel recession and a lack of visible projects, such as EU-funded highways, are costing hearts and minds. Forty two percent of Ukrainians want to integrate with Russia, compared to 34 percent with the EU, the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) think-tank reports.
"The Eastern Partnership is a step forward. But it is still a typical EU solution – a long-term, technocratic instrument for a region full of short-term crises," the ECFR’s Andrew Wilson said.