Poland and Sweden presented Monday their EU partners with a plan to strengthen ties with eastern European nations like Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, Belarus and Moldova, which could one day join the bloc.
"Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus -- these are countries whose territories lie in Europe," Polish Foreign Minister Radoslav Sikorski said, ahead of talks with his European Union counterparts in Brussels.
"They all have the right to join the bloc if they meet the criteria," he told reporters, denying that the idea was simply being launched to counter a French plan to boost ties with the EU's Mediterranean partners.
The European Commission last week unveiled plans to raise the profile of relations with Mediterranean rim countries with a regular summit and ministerial meetings. It would see a new forum for ties launched in Paris on July 13-14.
The move would revamp the creaking Barcelona Process, which was launched in 1995 as a framework for political, economic and social ties, but whose aims have often been thwarted by confrontations between Israel and Arab countries.
Sikorski said that Poland and Sweden had similar aims, but played down any similarities with the French project. "We want to create something that would add value to existing mechanisms," he said, such as the so-called European Neighborhood Policy governing cooperation with near non-EU nations.
He said that Poland and Sweden want the EU to improve trade and streamline visa policy with those countries -- Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. "We want to make sure that our civilization model is seen as attractive," Sikorski said.
Sweden's Europe Minister Cecilia Malstroem underlined that the European Neighborhood Policy "hasn't been working ... it hasn't been targeting the individual countries and their conditions." "We have a responsibility to engage in a more strategic way," she said.
Senior EU officials generally welcomed the plan ahead of the talks. "We should welcome all such initiatives," said Slovenian Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel, whose country holds the EU's rotating presidency. "I am personally enthusiastic about any initiative that extends European values and European standards."
EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said: "I think we can get good ideas out of it."
However Luxembourg's Jean Asselborn warned: "This could be dangerous for cohesion in Europe". "This can't just become a game in which some are more for the south, while others are more for the east," he said.