EU leaders denounce Russia pressure on Ukraine
Europe's leaders denounced Russian pressure on eastern European states and pledged to consider backing for a French peacekeeping mission in the Central African Republic at a summit ending Friday.
Hailing France for having "courageously taken the lead in a serious crisis" in Africa for the second time in a year, EU president Herman Van Rompuy said the European Union would take a decision on a possible support mission in January.
"The French response has helped avoid a civil war, perhaps even genocide" in CAR, said Van Rompuy at the close of the two-day summit.
But after weeks of pro-EU protests by hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians, much of the talk centred on the growing strain in EU-Russia ties.
"We have differences, even a long list of differences" with Russia, said Van Rompuy. "Pressure on some of the countries belonging to our Eastern Partnership is adding ... to the list of our differences".
The 28-nation bloc has worked for years to strengthen political and economic relations with six former Soviet states on its eastern flank in what is known as its Eastern Partnership programme, a project watched with suspicion in Moscow.
But Ukraine a month ago rejected a landmark trade and political deal due to have been signed with the EU at an Eastern Partnership summit in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius at end November.
EU leaders said in a joint statement that the bloc "emphasizes the right of all sovereign states to make their own foreign policy decisions without undue external pressure".
Ukraine cited Russian pressure as one of the reasons for its change of heart after Armenia too chose to turn its back on Brussels and look to Moscow.
The issue will be raised at an EU-Russia summit at the end of January which Van Rompuy said would "be an interesting and challenging" face-to-face.
"The future of Ukraine lies with Europe," he said. "One can try to slow it down, to block it, but in the end no one can prevent it.
"Geography and history will always mean a special relationship with Russia, of course we acknowledge that.
"We have made it abundantly clear that the EU's agreements with partner countries in the region are not at Russia's expense."
Georgia and Moldova initialled partnership agreements with the EU at the Vilnius summit and the bloc's leaders pledged to ward off potential pressure against the two small countries
"We will stand by the side of these countries in their choice and ... we are willing to speed up the signing of the agreements with them, next August at the latest," the EU said.
French President Francois Hollande meanwhile lobbied for EU support for the 1,600 French soldiers deployed to CAR earlier this month, but got little immediate help.
"What I would like to see, politically, is a European presence," Hollande said. "That it cannot be said that 'France is alone.'"
German Chancellor Angela Merkel cautioned that "we cannot finance a military mission if we are not involved in the decision-making process."
Merkel said she had told her EU colleagues that a "European Union mandate would also be necessary to back this kind of political mission."
Van Rompuy, noting that the summit was dedicated to defence policy, said the CAR crisis once again showed the importance of Europe having rapid reaction forces and structures to allow it to "meet its responsibilities when necessary."
France deployed the troops to CAR under a UN mandate to quell deadly sectarian violence between Muslims and Christians.
The summit also signed off on a new bank regulation framework, welcomed as a key integration step, but made only limited progress on defence where Britain said it agreed with cooperation efforts but rejected any idea of an EU army.
© 2013 AFP