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By Gevorg Stamboltsian
European Union diplomats in Yerevan sought on Friday to guard against excessive expectations from this week’s inclusion of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia in the list of countries enjoying privileged ties with the bloc.

They made it clear that none of the South Caucasus states will be able to draw material benefits from the European Neighborhood Policy before 2007 and will have to negotiate with the EU separate “action plans” on economic and political reforms by that time.

“It is from 2007 onwards that there will be new financial opportunities in place,” Jacques Vantomme, the acting representatives of the EU’s executive Commission to Armenia and Georgia, told reporters.

The decision to include the three ex-Soviet republics in the initiative, also known as “Wider Europe,” was formally confirmed on Monday by the foreign ministers of the EU member states. Officials in Brussels stressed that the decision does not pave the way for their eventual accession to the EU. Still, the region will be eligible for free trade, more aid grants and extensive political dialogue with the bloc in the near future.

“The decision which was taken on Monday is up to now mainly symbolic. If there will be more money coming from the European Union it might be in 2007,” said Hans-Wulf Bartels, the German ambassador to Armenia who also represents the current Irish presidency of the EU.

According to Vantomme, Armenia and its neighbors will themselves decide how far they want to go in forging closer ties with enlarged Europe and conforming to its political and economic standards. He said the action plans will put the emphasis on the democratization of their political systems, while also dealing with cooperation in the areas of energy, transport, information technology and the fight against terrorism.

“The European Commission will have to report [by 2007] on the implementation of the action plan to be negotiated by the two sides,” Vantomme said. “The two sides will have to decide how far they want to go in harmonizing certain domains.”

“All three countries were included in the European Neighborhood Policy on the same footing,” the EU diplomat added. “But from now on they will be judged on their own individual merits. It is possible that one country goes faster than the others.”

EU officials increasingly single out Georgia, whose November “revolution of roses” served as the catalyst for the region’s inclusion in “Wider Europe,” as deserving star treatment among the three South Caucasus countries. In a strong endorsement of President Mikhail Saakashvili’s reform agenda, the EU foreign ministers on Monday decided to launch a "rule of law" mission in Georgia to help the country improve its criminal justice system. Not only will it be the first EU mission of its kind, it also marks the first application of the bloc's defense and security policy outside of the Balkans or Africa.

Vantomme announced that the EU’s special representative to the South Caucasus, Heikki Talvitie, will arrive in Yerevan on June 28 to start discussions on practical aspects of Armenia’s participation in the European Neighborhood Policy. He said a more high-ranking official from the European Commission will pay a similar visit to the region ten days later.

Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian welcomed his country’s inclusion in the EU scheme. “It is an important step in the European integration processes and I think it creates serious prospects for Armenia,” Oskanian said.

(Photolur photo: Bartels, left, and Vantomme speaking at the joint news conference.)
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