Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan refused to sign a declaration, condemning the deterioration of human rights, democracy and the rule of law in Belarus, at the Eastern Partnership summit in Warsaw on 30 September.
Only EU countries signed a ‘Declaration on the situation in Belarus’, deploring the persisting deterioration of media freedom in Belarus and calling for the immediate release and rehabilitation of all political prisoners.
According to a Polish EU Presidency representative, the organisers had tried to reach a common declaration of all participants, after Belarus announced it was withdrawing from the EU’s ‘Eastern Partnership’ (EaP) initiative, aimed at developing closer relations with the countries of Europe’s east.
A civil society conference held in the sidelines of the EaP summit, where Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk and Council President Herman Van Rompuy held meetings with the Belarus opposition. Upon his return from Warsaw, Belarusian opposition leader Anatoly Lebedko was arrested by the police.
The declaration makes no mention of the worsening human rights situation in other EaP countries, such as Ukraine, where the former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko is undergoing what the EU calls a political trial.
However, European Council President Herman Van Rompuy, who chaired the Summit, said that the EU had “expressed [its] concerns about the fate of the former prime minister”, as well as its rejection of “the possible selective use of judicial measures against members of the former administration”.
Election race tightens
According to the Polish Radio, the Polish opposition Law and Justice party (PiS) of former Prime Minister Jarosław Kaczyński accused the government and the Foreign Ministry of failing to prepare the summit properly. In its view, the five countries’ refusal to sign the declaration on Belarus is a “fiasco” for Polish diplomacy. Poland is holding parliamentary elections on 9 October.
Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk’s Civic Platform party (PO) had a lead of just three points over the main opposition, the rightist Law and Justice (PiS) party, less than a week before a parliamentary election, Reuters reported today (3 October), quoting the latest opinion poll.
PO, which was earlier expected to win the 9 October vote easily, was backed by 32 percent of Poles, according to the survey by Millward Brown SMG/KRC for Gazeta.pl.
‘More for more’
But the most substantial part of the declaration gathered the support of all participants. The European Union is sticking to the principle of ‘more for more’, willing to assist the EaP countries and help their integration, depending on their ‘genuine progress’ in reforms.
According to critics, the EaP lacks the force to deeply transform the societies in participating countries, because it remains ambiguous on the kind of relationship they would have with the Union in the longer term.
Even though the EU is grappling with the economic crisis, it remains committed to building a new strategy for its neighbourhood, the declaration says.
Van Rompuy emphasised that EaP countries remained “a priority for the European Union” and that goals were set for the coming years.
EaP countries are particularly interested in joining visa facilitation programs, similar of those which recently achieved visa free travel for the Western Balkans.
“We have specified our vision of a visa-free regime for all the interested participants in the Eastern Partnership,” Tusk noted, making it clear that EaP states were promised visa-free travel to the EU, as soon as they were ready.
The EU is now implementing Visa Action Plans with Ukraine and Moldova, with the aim of visa liberalisation. Visa facilitation and readmission agreements are being implemented with Georgia and Brussels hopes to negotiate similar agreements with Armenia, Azerbaijan and Belarus.
European Commission President José Manuel Barroso revealed that the Partnership countries could expect increased funding: “The European Commission has proposed additional funds that will allow further development of the Eastern Partnership.” Total financing of the Partnership has now reached almost €2 billion.
Free Trade on the horizon
The summit confirmed that Ukraine, a frontrunner in this field, could wrap up a ‘Deep and comprehensive free trade agreement (DCFTA)’ by the end of the year, and that similar negotiations could be started with Moldova and Georgia. Furthermore, an Eastern Partnership Public Administration Academy is to be established in Warsaw, to assist with the building of democratic institutions in the partner countries.
Štefan Füle, European Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy, said the Commission had established a Neighbourhood Civil Society Facility a few days ago. For 2011, the budget of the Facility is €22 million. “We also aim to set up a European Endowment for Democracy,” he added.
“We need to communicate our work to citizens. Improving the visibility of our activities within the Eastern Partnership is certainly a challenge for the future,” Füle said.