How does the new formula work?
[b]A ‘raised bar for contacts’, ‘a European entrance hall’, ‘a horizontal model of co-operation’ and ‘a project for a new home’ are popular phrases used to characterise the Eastern Partnership programme. Initiated by Poland and Sweden in Prague a year ago, it envisages a new strategy of collaboration between 27 EU countries and their closest neighbours. These include Belarus, Ukraine and Moldova, as well as the South Caucasian countries of Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia. The programme’s strategic goals are to encourage these six states towards European values and standards in politics and in their economies, creating free trade between the EU and its partner countries, while abolishing the visa regime [/b]How have relations drawn closer over the last year? The issue was recently discussed at the Eastern Partnership Informal Summit for Foreign Ministers in Polish Sopot.
How have relations drawn closer over the last year? The issue was recently discussed at the Eastern Partnership Informal Summit for Foreign Ministers in Polish Sopot.
On stage and behind the curtains
According to the Foreign Minister of Spain (who chairs the EU), Miguel Бngel Moratinos, the summit in Sopot ‘was absolutely successful and full of symbolism’. His Polish colleague, Radosław Sikorski, and the EU Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy, ¦tefan Fьle, were also full of optimism. The diplomats spoke of ‘live discussions’ and noted that the programme ‘has considerably advanced’ over the past year.
These are official comments, yet other opinions could be heard behind the summit’s curtains. Polish politicians and experts observing the summit in Sopot noted the importance of having a forum such as the Eastern Partnership in which to work together. Its role cannot be underestimated although its potential is yet to become fully realised. Many await tangible results.
Poland’s ex-president and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Lech Wałęsa, believes that the Eastern Partnership programme as a form of co-operation is replacing the EU expansion. “The European Union isn’t ready to accept all those wishing to join. However, we need to elaborate schemes of collaboration, preserving the opportunity for further integration. This is the context in which the Eastern Partnership programme should be viewed,” he explains.
Speaking of Belarus and Ukraine, the famous Polish politician noted that, “It’s impossible to imagine Europe without these two countries. Of course, we wish Belarus and Ukraine to join Europe as soon as possible.” Meanwhile, according to Mr. Wałęsa, it’s necessary to objectively assess the situation. Today, Ukraine and, especially, Belarus have strong economic dependence on Russia. We need to involve Minsk and Kiev in the orbit of European political financial assistance (worth billions of US dollars); it can serve as a ‘life buoy’ during shocks, such as those relating to energy. However, primarily because of financial problems in Greece, the EU lacks enough funds at present. The euro-integration of Belarus and Ukraine won’t happen quickly.
A famous parliamentary figure, who wished to remain unknown, noted ‘although it’s unusual to say so ‘on record’, the Eastern Partnership is the EU’s attempt to compete with Russia to influence their closest neighbours’. He stresses that the EU wants predictability and stability on its eastern borders and believes that today’s Russia, especially after its military conflict with Georgia in August 2008, seems rather unpredictable to most Europeans. However, he believes that Brussels doesn’t organise decisive political rivalry for the countries, neighbouring Russia. “The programme’s budget of 600m euros for six countries doesn’t compensate adequately for the ‘stress’ caused by Moscow.”
Our anonymous parliamentarian is also convinced of the necessity of the EU using a differentiated approach towards its partner countries. The six states have various views on euro-integration. For example, Moldova and Georgia plan to join the EU while Azerbaijan, Armenia and Belarus haven’t made such announcements. Therefore, individual schemes of co-operation are logical rather than uniting the six countries ‘in a single bag’.
Eastern Partnership and Belarus
Belarus’ Foreign Minister, Sergei Martynov, expressed Minsk’s official view on co-operation with the EU on the eve of the Sopot summit, speaking to the Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper. He stipulates, “Accession to the EU isn’t a goal for us at the moment; we’re planning gradual rapprochement. This is one of our major priorities.”
It’s vital to remember that Russia remains one of Belarus’ main foreign political partners. Minsk and Moscow have signed the Union State Foundation Treaty and it remains in force. At the same time, the EU accounts for around half of Belarus’ foreign trade balance. Difficulties in relations with Moscow (disparity of gas prices, Russia’s introduction of oil customs duties and protectionism measures against Belarusian goods) have pushed Minsk to actively diversify its economic and foreign political contacts. Growth of bilateral trade and the attraction of investments and the latest European technologies are Belarus’ major expectations of the Eastern Partnership. However, official Minsk is ready to discuss the ‘political weather’ with the EU (which, according to EU Commissioner ¦tefan Fьle, could be better). Minsk is awaiting ‘practical content and concrete projects’.
In Sopot, Mr. Martynov proposed the creation of the ‘business dimension’ of the programme, to provide direct dialogue between business structures. The Foreign Minister also called on the European Commission to adopt clear and transparent rules for the consideration and further financing of projects.
Several concrete initiatives are being implemented or prepared for realisation within the Eastern Partnership format, such as an integrated border management project — worth 50m euros. The programme to assist small and medium-sized businesses in 2010-2013 is also among these projects, with its budget standing at 57m euros. The sums are modest but still significant…
The Polish Foreign Minister, Radosław Sikorski, stresses that, alongside direct financing, European banking institutions will also be funding various projects. For instance, the European Investment Bank has reserved 1.5bn euros to modernise the infrastructure of partner countries. For Belarus, as a transit country, infrastructure projects (covering border control, customs service and power engineering) are of special interest…
As an initiator of the Eastern Partnership programme, Poland is actively supporting Belarus’ participation. Mr. Sikorski stressed in Sopot the necessity of dialogue and co-operation with Minsk. “Belarus is our neighbour and neighbours can’t be chosen,” he noted.
Warsaw and Minsk have plenty of topics to discuss, with many proving challenging. However, the former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Poland, Prof. Daniel Rotfeld, believes that there’s nothing extraordinary. “States situated far from each other usually have no serious problems in their relationships,” he explains. “As a rule, difficulties appear among neighbouring countries. It’s like a family: when people live close to hand, it’s harder to avoid misunderstanding and conflict.”
The situation with the Union of Poles in Belarus has become a definite test for Belarusian-Polish relations. Media from both sides have been quick to report on ‘the oppression of the Polish minority’. However, criticism has been weightier of late. Prof. Rotfeld calls on us to be objective, saying, “The conflict should be analysed from a political point of view. It’s not politically motivated! The Belarusian authorities treat Poles just as well as they treat Belarusians.”
The situation regarding the Union of Poles being split into two groups was discussed during negotiations between Alexander Lukashenko and Radosław Sikorski in Kiev. They’ve agreed to create a special working group to settle conflicts calmly and without speculation. In his interview with Gazeta Wyborcza, Belarus’ Foreign Minister was asked whether it’s possible for both unions to co-exist: one headed by Stanislaw Siemaszko and the other headed by Andżelika Borys. Mr. Martynov responded that this was the ultimate goal before the tragic death (in the air crash near Smolensk) of Poland’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Andrzej Kremer, the co-chairman of the Polish side of the group. In late May, Minsk and Warsaw were outlining terms of future meetings. “Let’s not jump ahead, but wait for the results of experts’ work,” recommends Mr. Martynov.
Mr. Sikorski also called on Polish journalists at a press conference in Sopot not to be in a hurry with results and to await a competent conclusion. The mutual interest of officials on both sides in evident. They have no wish for unnecessary confrontation, wishing to solve disagreements with diplomacy; it’s a good sign for our future relations.
Belarusians and Poles were a single state under the Rzech Pospolita for centuries and we continue to work closely, despite some contradictions and misunderstandings. Poland’s chair of the EU in H2 2011 is aiding the development of relations within Warsaw-Minsk and Belarus-EU formats.
By Vitaly Volyanyuk