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By Ahto Lobjakas in Brussels
The European Union took late Monday what appears to be the first step towards including Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia in its "Wider Europe" program of preferential relations with the so-called "new neighbors."

The foreign ministers of the EU’s 15 member states and 10 other nations that are poised to join the bloc instructed its executive body, the European Commission, to look into ways of expanding the cooperation scheme into the South Caucasus and to report back to them by next June. In a statement, they said a final decision on the matter will be based on the opinion of the Commission and its High Commissioner for Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana in particular.

Unveiled by the European Commission last summer, the "Wider Europe" offers Russia, Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus -- among others -- closer cooperation. Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan were not covered by the initiative.

EU officials told RFE/RL earlier that the November “rose revolution” in Georgia prompted the EU to consider sending an "explicit" signal to the three countries that their inclusion remains a possibility, even though none of them presently meets the legislative and regulatory criteria necessary for closer cooperation. Not surprisingly, Georgia was singled out in the ministers’ statement issued after a meeting in Brussels.

Officials now say that the three ex-Soviet states will have to adopt a large percentage of EU law if they are to achieve closer integration into Europe. That would mean, in the long term, becoming part of what the EU calls its “four freedoms” -- free movement of people, capital, goods and services. Further economic assistance to the impoverished region, in the meantime, will remain the bloc’s main short-term focus.

Speaking at a news conference, the EU’s External Relations Commissioner Chris Patten stressed that greater aid to Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia will be contingent on more political and economic reforms.
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