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France, Poland at odds over EU funding for Eastern Europe

BRUSSELS — Poland and France were at odds Thursday over an EU Commission scheme to grant 600 million euros in aid to six ex-Soviet states, with Paris fearing it would lessen the pot for Mediterranean nations.

The commission has proposed the funding to Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine under the European Union’s "Eastern Partnership" project, an initiative by Poland and Sweden to counterbalance the Mediterranean partnership scheme championed last year by France.

The Eastern Partnership was one of the issues being discussed at a two-day EU summit in Brussels which got underway Thursday.

"We’ve seen how fragile the region is, both during the Georgian crisis, the gas crisis and the economic crisis," Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski said, referring to a brief war between Russia and Georgia last August, a Russia-Ukraine gas row in January and the current recession.

The 600 million euros (820 million dollars) "is the absolute minimum that we can do to try to help the region stabilise," he added.

He pointed out that with the aid split six ways over the 2009-2013 period, it meant just 20 million euros a year for each struggling nation.

If the crisis continues "according to pessimistic scenarios we will be looking at problems in billions not millions," he warned.

France however is opposed to any fixed amount being agreed at this stage, a French source in Brussels said.

While Paris agrees in principle on the need to "reinforce" aid to the six ex-Soviet neighbours of the European Union, "we have to look at the concrete projects" that will be proposed, the source said.

There was also the need to maintain a "balance" between funding of "two-thirds to southern nations and one third for the countries in the East."

The 27 EU heads of state and government gathered in Brussels were set to give the Eastern Partnership scheme the green light with an inaugural summit scheduled in Prague on May 7.

The French source said that no funding decision was expected at the current EU summit.

The Mediterranean Union scheme raised some European hackles when French President Nicolas Sarkozy launched the idea as his country assumed the rotating EU presidency in July 2008.

Germany, which was originally excluded from the plans, was annoyed that only nations with a Mediterranean coastline were included.

France reviewed the project and included all EU nations.

Earlier in Brussels, Ukrainian Vice Premier Hrihoriy Nemyria urged the European Union to use some "creative thinking" to extend emergency loans to crisis-hit countries — such as his — bordering the EU.