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EU reviews its policy towards its eastern neighbours

Posted by Nick Prag at 26 March 2015, 22:40 CET |

Ukraine and Russia were topics of this week in the European Union, with the Europe's Parliament approving huge financial assistance to Ukraine, while the Commission published country reports on implementation of the European Neighbourhood Policy.

The MEPs in plenary approved a major plan to lend Ukraine EUR 1.8 billion to help plug its short-term balance of payments gap. The EU will borrow the money externally and lend it on to Ukraine with the same interest rate. The loan is tied to Ukraine pledging structural reforms to tackle problems that contributed to the current crisis.

This sends a strong political message, says the Lithuanian rapporteur Gabrielius Landsbergis MEP, "not only to Ukraine to show that the EU stands firmly by it, but also to those countries which seek to see us divided in helping Ukraine."

This week also saw publication by the Commission of a set of annual reports assessing implementation of the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) with the 16 partner countries in the East and the South and made recommendations for the year ahead.

The ENP forms an increasingly important part of the EU's foreign policy, working with southern and eastern neighbours with the goal of achieving closer political association and economic integration.

The reports show the development of the partner countries in 2014 in terms of democratic transition, human rights and fundamental freedoms, their economic development and the countries' cooperation with the EU in sectoral areas such as migration and mobility, energy and transport.

This year, the reports acquire extra importance as they will also assist the EU in a process of re-evaluation of its approach towards the region as a whole, launched on 4 March.

Over these initiatives looms the shadow of Russia, which has for a long time exerted its muscle on its former soviet neighbours and on any inclinations they may have to choose their own future direction.

Russia has made great efforts to block these countries' attempts to get closer to the European Union, as was the case with Armenia, and to try to derail raprochement with Europe, as seen in its response in Ukraine and in Georgia.

The EU's response has been to look to remodel on its Eastern Partnership policy. The Eastern Partnership is a tool with which the EU can help to stabilise and ensure the security and well-being of the 6 countries on its eastern neighbourhood border.

Another such tool is the 1.8bn euros of macro-financial assistance agreed by the Euro-Parliament this week.

The focus, particularly for Latvia's EU presidency, will now be on the Eastern Partnership Summit in Riga in May, where leaders are due to look at the progress made in relations between the EU and its eastern partners since the last Summit in November 2013 in Vilnius.

At this summit, the Partnership looked very different. Since then, we have seen the annexation of parts of one country, while on the other hand three of the six partners, Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia have signed and ratified association agreements or deepened comprehensive free trade agreements with the EU.

The schedule for the May Summit allows for an initial exchange of views on the results of the provisional application of the three Association Agreements signed with Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine while simultaneously strengthening ties with Armenia, Azerbaijan and Belarus. New projects of common interest - such as the creation of a common European economic area - might also be a topic for discussion during the Summit.

The issue of closer ties with western Europe sparked the whole Euromaidan crisis in Ukraine. The EU now knows that Russia will not easily let former parts of the Soviet Union choose their own future - despite the blows to its economy of western sanctions.

Foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini says the EU is ready to take up the challenge: "the EU is determined to step up its engagement with our partners across the region on political, economic and security cooperation."

The re-evaluation and future direction of the EU' Eastern Partnership will be a good test of Europe's resolve.

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Nick Prag

Nick Prag

Nick Prag is founder and managing editor of Prior to EUbusiness, he was senior editor at Europe Online SA in Luxembourg, where he played a major part in the launch of Europe Online International.