EU says not competing with Russia in eastern neighbourhood

By Valentina Pop

The European Commission assured Moscow that the EU's policy's towards its eastern neighbours is not a form of competition, with Brussels keeping the door open for "project-based" co-operation with Russia.

"We don't want to see competition in that region, with Russia on one side and the EU on the other. Russia has been offered to take part in the neighbourhood policy. They have refused. But that doesn't mean we are not open for suggestions from Russia to participate in various projects," neighbourhood commissioner Stefan Fuele told journalists while taking stock of the bloc's five-year policy towards its southern and eastern neighbours.

Apart from its country-by-country relations with post-Soviet states, the EU last year launched the "Eastern Partnership," a regional approach aimed at boosting EU-inspired reforms in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, which would ultimately lead to more economic integration and a visa-free regime for its citizens.

> Eastern Partnership Map
EU leaders earmarked an additional €350 million until 2013 dedicated to this partnership. Half of the sum will go to "administrative capacity building" to deal with transposing "complex" EU law into national legislation.

In Ukraine and Moldova's case in particular, this alignment with EU legislation is seen as keeping the door open to eventual EU membership.

The commissioner, whose portfolio includes both enlargement and neighbourhood policy, stressed that there was a fundamental difference between the EU's approach towards its southern and eastern neighbours.

While Arab countries within the Mediterranean Union were looking at "regulatory convergence" and "legislative approximation" with EU law, Mr Fuele explained, ex-Soviet states in the east were aiming at "economic integration" and adoption of the bloc's internal market rules - which "goes way beyond a free trade area."

For Ukraine's energy sector, for instance, it means setting up independent oversight bodies, putting a clear regulatory framework in place and separating energy distributors from producers. Adoption of these measures are a pre-requirement for the country joining the "Energy Community," a body initially designed for Balkan countries, but which has since expanded to include Moldova since 1 May.

The new government in Kiev has halted the process and started public consultations on a new draft law however, after pulling the one drafted by the previous government.

Russia's influence in the region is still a matter of concern for Brussels. The EU is currently negotiating a new bilateral agreement with Russia, where "the issue of the neighbourhood and us working together constructively is part of that discussion," Mr Fuele said.

"At the same time the commission is open to looking at other ways of how to involve Russia in projects and ideas and how to combine our soft powers," he added.

On Monday, a Kremlin document believed to have been leaked intentionally to the Russian edition of Newsweek, said that Russia should build better relations with the EU, while at the same time trying to get a firmer grip on eastern countries struggling with the economic and financial crisis.

The paper, apparently drafted by foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, suggests taking advantage of the crisis to acquire industrial and energy assets in the Baltic states, which are EU members, but also in Belarus, Ukraine and Central Asia - all former Soviet countries where Russian influence is a sensitive political issue.

It also recommends "using the post-crisis opportunities" and the Lisbon Treaty for "acquiring banking, financial and industrial assets primarily by large Russian companies with state capital" in Europe.

Germany, France, Italy and Spain are singled out as being Moscow-friendly countries, while the Franco-German "tandem" is to be exploited as a vehicle for promoting pro-Russian policies within the EU.