Auteur: Eric Maurice
EU leaders will keep alive their Eastern Partnership with six ex-Soviet states, while limiting their partners’ hopes of EU membership.
The Eastern Partnership summit in Riga, which started with an informal dinner on Thursday (21 May), focuses on the "European aspirations" of Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova.
These three countries, whose relations with the EU are already deeper than those of Armenia, Berlarus, and Azerbaijan, the partnership’s three other countries, pressed the EU to promise them future EU membership.
Ukraine and Georgia also expected the EU to grant them a visa free regime next year.
But the EU, wary of further enlargement and careful not to antagonise Russia, made clear it would not rush on either issue.
"The Eastern Partnership is not an instrument for enlargement of the European union, but it is an instrument of rapprochement with the European Union," German chancellor Angela Merkel said when she arrived in Riga.
Leaders discussed the subject at the dinner so that there should be no heated debate at Friday’s formal meeting.
"EU leaders, especially from the big countries, made clear this [enlargement] is not a question for now but that we do not exclude anything," an EU official told EUobserver.
"We are not against it but it is not the right time".
The dinner went through in a relaxed atmosphere, the official said, with Georgia’s prime minister Irakli Garibashvili talking "passionately" about his country’s "standing for European values and wanting to get something in return".
The summit declaration is to say that participants "acknowledge the European aspirations and European choice of the partners concerned", with no mention of future membership perspectives.
The draft document also "warmly welcome[s] the progress made by Georgia and Ukraine" in the implementation of measures demanded by the EU to fight trans-border trafficking and corruption.
Ukraine and Georgia will now wait for a European Commission report in autumn. If the report states that they are ready for a visa-free regime, the EU's green light could come quickly, the official said.
With Russian-occupied regions in Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia as well as Russian pressure on neighbouring countries, the Kremlin is the elephant in the room in Riga.
"Russia was mentioned a lot" at the dinner, the EU official told EUobserver,
EU leaders repeated on Thursday that the Eastern Partnership is not directed against Russia, but also underlined that Russia should not interfere with its neighbours’ foreign policy.
"The Eastern Partnership is not a beauty contest between Russia and the European Union," said Donald Tusk, the president of the EU Council, before Thursday's dinner.
"But, let me be frank, beauty does count. If Russia was a bit softer, more charming, more attractive, perhaps it wouldn't have to compensate its shortcomings by its destructive and aggressive bullying tactics."