European Union foreign ministers agreed on Monday, May 26, to negotiate a key deal with Russia and discussed proposals to strengthen the bloc's ties with its eastern neighbors.
The EU and Russia want to update their recently expired cooperation agreement
The agreement on talks for a new EU-Russia strategic partnership follows two years of wrangling and a dropped veto from Lithuania. It is intended to replace the current Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA), which ran out in 2007, and should include legally-binding measures on such issues as energy, security, trade and education.
Negotiations are to be formally launched in Siberia on June 26-27, when new President Dmitry Medvedev will represent Russia for the first time. They were only made possible after Lithuania, the last EU member to block the talks, was assured that its concerns about energy supply and Moscow's stance on Georgia would be addressed.
Officials in Brussels predict complex negotiations with Moscow are likely to last about a year, with a further year required for its ratification by EU member states and Russia.
EU ministers also listened to Polish plans for strengthening ties with Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and, eventually, Belarus.
Supported by Sweden and blessed by heavyweights France and Germany, the so-called Eastern Partnership comes on the back of French plans to boost the EU's ties with its southern neighbors in a Union for the Mediterranean.
Visa-free travel in sight
According to a text seen by German news agency DPA, the proposed Eastern Partnership would seek to deepen cooperation and focus on concrete proposals in the area of migration, with an eye to moving towards a visa-free regime.
It would also seek to create a free trade area, provide support for reforms designed to bring those countries up to EU standards, and arrange more student exchange programs.
The partnership would use existing neighborhood funds and would have an institutional structure that is "as light-weight and goal-oriented as possible."
Human rights, a frequent bone of contention under Russia's former President Vladimir Putin, and energy supply are also likely to become major topics of discussion.
Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the commissioner in charge of the EU's external relations, said the EU executive would only support the plan if it provided "added value" and did not duplicate existing EU policies.
"The negotiation will certainly not be easy … I think they will take quite some time," she said.
Poland advocates eastern focus
Polish and Swedish diplomats say the partnership will encourage "multilateral cooperation" and "foster regional links."
Cooperation with Belarus, whose democratic credentials have been thrown into question, would initially take place only on a "technical and expert level."
The Polish-Swedish plan was welcomed by the Czech Republic, which is due to take over the rotating presidency of the EU on Jan. 1. France, which launched the idea of the Mediterranean Union, is due to hold the EU presidency from July 1 this year.
"This year is the Mediterranean year, next year would be the eastern year," said the Czech deputy prime minister for European affairs, Alexander Vondra.
Kosovo handover unrealistic
Another major issue up for discussion in Brussels is the bloc's EU-Lex law mission in Kosovo. The mission was originally meant to take over the administration of the newly independent country from the United Nations on June 15.
But EU officials now concede that legal and logistical difficulties mean that the deadline is unrealistic.
"EU-Lex is going slowly but surely," said Slovenian Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel, who chaired Monday's meeting as current EU president.