EU holds landmark summit with ex-Soviet states
Prague — Despite the absence of several key European leaders the EU launched an Eastern Partnership Thursday, a bid to stabilise six ex-Soviet nations, but insisted the project was no threat to Russia.
The Eastern Partnership initiative "should not be a renewal of two blocs East and West, it should not be a fight for influence," said outgoing Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency.
The main goal of the partnership was to "accelerate political association and further economic integration" between the 27 EU nations and Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, said the participants in an agreed summit statement.
That was not expected to assuage Russian opposition to the project, which Moscow sees as an attempt to downgrade its own influence in its back yard.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Wednesday warned against the creation of "new dividing lines" in Europe.
"Some comments from Russian leaders have not been very constructive," EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana retorted at a post-summit press conference.
"This is not against Russia," EU Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso said, in comments reprised by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the only major Western European leader to attend the Prague talks.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero and Italian counterpart Silvio Berlusconi were 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.
Topolanek, who cedes office to an interim PM on Friday after losing a parliamentary confidence vote in March, bristled at any suggestion of a diplomatic snub.
"I think this is really offensive to everybody who has participated," he told reporters, painstakingly reading out the names of all the heads and government who had attended.
The multiple absences did not prevent Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski, whose country along with Sweden dreamed up the Eastern Partnership scheme, from hailing a "Polish success".
Ukraine’s President Viktor Yushchenko called the Eastern Partnership "a first road map" for relations with Europe.
"There is a financial support from the EU and an understanding that there should be more cooperation with its neighbours," he said.
However many analysts pointed out that the project’s European funding of 600 million euros up to 2013 was relatively modest compared to the risks of political and economic instability in the six partner countries.
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.
EU leaders were keen to stress that the new rapprochement with the ex-Soviet states would not lead to new members of the EU club.
France, Germany and others feel that the bloc already has enough on its plate by offering possible membership to Balkan states, and are keen to avoid heightened levels of illegal immigration and crime.
What they can hope for is free trade and easy visa regimes, though with strict conditions attached and on a slow and gradual basis.
The EU and its Eastern partners will now seek to put some concrete measures in place including in the key energy, human rights , good governance, border security and economic spheres, according to a Ukrainian official.