Poland, Sweden propose new EU outreach for eastern Europe

With older EU nations wary about offering membership to the likes of Ukraine, Poland seeks other means to draw easterners close to the Western bloc.

Radoslaw Sikorski 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Radoslaw Sikorski 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Poland and Sweden sought support Monday from other European Union nations for a new outreach program to build closer ties with Ukraine and the EU's other former Soviet neighbors to the east. The plan would go beyond the EU's current "neighborhood policy," which groups eastern European countries such as Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus with nations in North Africa and the Middle East. Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski said it was important to make a distinction because the easterners are European nations who could one day apply to join the EU. Poland and Sweden presented the plan at a meeting of EU foreign ministers who agreed it should be taken up at a summit of the bloc's leaders next month. Russia was not included in the Polish-Swedish plan, but the EU approved plans Monday to begin negotiations with Moscow on a new cooperation agreement, which had been long delayed because of Polish and Lithuanian objections. "We are trying to normalize our relations with Russia," Sikorski told reporters before the EU talks. But he predicted the talks with Russia would be tough, particularly over sensitive issues such as energy and human rights. Poland, which joined the EU in 2004, is concerned about instability on its eastern borders as former Soviet countries are squeezed between Russia and the West. With older EU nations wary about offering membership to the likes of Ukraine, Poland is seeking other means to draw the easterners close to the Western bloc. The Polish-Swedish plan includes easing visa restrictions on countries to the east, closer cooperation on environmental issues and freeing up trade. "We think it's time to look to the east to see what we can do to strengthen democracy," Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said. Ukraine's government stressed the new initiative should offer the goal of eventual membership. "The 'Eastern partnership' should envisage a clear EU membership perspective," said a statement from Ukraine's Foreign Ministry. Ukraine is the biggest of the nations covered by the plan. Its pro-Western government has long campaigned for the EU and NATO to give it a membership option, despite strong opposition from Russia. Sikorski warned that the prospects of the EU offering membership in the near future were slim because of "enlargement fatigue" in older members, following the entry of 10 former communist nations since 2004. Meanwhile, he urged the eastern countries to work more closely among themselves to prepare for eventual membership, as Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and Czech Republic did before they joined. Sikorski said the "eastern dimension" would be a major priority when Poland takes over the EU presidency in 2011. Meanwhile, the Czech Republic and Sweden are expected to focus on the east when they hold the presidency next year. For the second half of this year, France will hold the presidency and has said it wants to develop EU relations with the Mediterranean nations.