By Rikard Jozwiak
WARSAW -- The Eastern Partnership summit kicks off in Warsaw on September 29 amid fears that the six Eastern neighbors are slipping further away from a European Union that has turned its attention elsewhere.
Leaders or officials from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine will meet several of their EU counterparts at a two-day gathering in the Polish capital that is expected to yield few concrete results.
One focus will be on Ukraine, with hopes for a clear timeframe to finalize negotiations for a “deep and comprehensive free trade area” (DCFTA) and association agreement with Kyiv, and for a launch date for similar negotiations with Armenia, Georgia, and Moldova.
Many politicians have raised concerns about the ongoing abuse-of-power trial of former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and how this would affect the trade negotiations, with France recently demanding a suspension.
Speaking at the European Parliament on September 27, the EU’s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said that talks would go ahead but that the ratification process could be tricky.
EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton
“We are going to continue with our discussions on the deep and comprehensive free trade area and the association agreement because we believe that the association agreement provides stronger guarantees, if you like, on some of these issues that we think are so important with Ukraine,” she said.
“But...it goes without saying that any agreements have to be ratified [and] that national and European parliaments would want to make sure that they are comfortable with the spirit in which this is done.”
Harsh Words For Belarus
Belarus, heavily criticized for its crackdown on government opponents, is also set to dominate the summit. The country was first supposed to be represented by Foreign Minister Serhiy Martynau, one of few senior Minsk officials not subject to a visa ban, but in an apparent diplomatic snub, Minsk decided at the last moment to send its Warsaw ambassador instead.
Polish diplomats said the ambassador could attend the summit, though he would participate “at the appropriate level,” indicating he might not be able to take part in all sessions.
The summit draft declaration also includes harsh words on the ongoing persecution of the democratic opposition in Belarus, though it mentions no new measures.
“[Leaders] express their deep concern at the deteriorating human rights, democracy and rule of law situation in Belarus and call for the immediate release and rehabilitation of all political prisoners and the start of a political dialogue with the opposition,” the document says. “They also call on the Belarusian authorities to fully respect their commitments to freedom of the media.”
The summit comes at a time when the political situation in the six countries in many ways looks less stable than two years ago when the Eastern Partnership was launched.
Now, revolutionary changes in the Arab world and the ongoing economic crisis in the eurozone are in the spotlight and enthusiasm for clinching deals with eastern neighbors appears to have subsided somewhat in many member states.
Adding to the sense of flagging interest, British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy will be absent from the summit, leaving German Chancellor Angela Merkel as the only head of government from a big member state.
French and German diplomats have indicated that the Eastern Partnership program is supposed to work as a substitute for real EU membership, whereas Poland sees it as a step towards a future eastern enlargement.
Poland's ambassador to the EU Jan Tombinski
Speaking to RFE/RL the Polish EU ambassador, Jan Tombinski, conceded that Warsaw’s goal looks hard to achieve at the moment.
“The European Union goes through a difficult period now,” he says. “We are so much occupied with our domestic issues in the sense of saving the euro, finding new ways in order to trigger growth and to prepare the European Union for better times. Therefore many countries are not willing now to open new possibilities for enlargement.”
The draft summit declaration gives a further sign that the EU is currently unwilling to entertain the thought of further expansion -- it omits references to Article 49 of the EU Treaty, stipulating that all European countries can become EU members.
Tombinski notes that only the countries’ “European aspirations” will be mentioned in the final document:
“Article 49 is something which is in the treaty and there is no doubt that every country which is considered European and showing [certain] values may make reference to this article and apply for membership. But it is pointless to apply for membership and be rejected. Therefore this article will probably not be mentioned in the joint declaration.”