For years, Brussels has offered financial and social incentives to nearby countries striving for economic and political stability. But it's a strategy that might eventually cause friction with Moscow.
The EU's borders are moving ever closer to Moscow
One of the EU's primary goals is to avoid or defuse any conflicts with neighboring countries, and in 2004 the bloc drafted its "European Neighborhood Policy" (ENP) to help it achieve that goal.
Under the scheme, Brussels reaches out to countries close to the EU's borders, offering financial aid, free or freer travel within the bloc, and potential entry into the European common market to countries prepared to work towards improving their economic and political stability.
"The Neighborhood Policy is our only real tool to strengthen the stability and prosperity around us," EU Expansion Commissioner Stefan Fuele said, explaining that the premise is to prevent problems early, rather than trying to cure them later.
"It is considered cheaper and more effective than tackling the spillover of breakdown or even continued instability in any of the countries surrounding the European Union."
Earlier this year, the EU's Expansion Commission was put in charge of running the ENP. Nevertheless, Brussels says ENP membership does not mean a country is necessarily on the path to EU membership.
Fuele says that stronger neighbors help the EU as well
Most of the 16 countries which benefit from the ENP currently fall well short of EU accession criteria, though the point of the program is to bring them closer into line with European norms.
There are also countries close to the EU's borders which are not part of the policy. In eastern Europe, for instance, Moldova and Ukraine are well integrated into the system, while Belarus does not participate.
"Our door is open, that's always been the case," Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said, stressing that the final decision on whether to join rests with Belarus. "The degree of cooperation within these partnerships is going to be dependent on their (the respective countries') state of internal affairs."
Ever since the ENP's inception, politicians and analysts worried that the policy might cause friction with Russia - especially when dealing with former Soviet satellite states, which Moscow considers to be within its sphere of influence. If handled poorly, experts warned, Brussels might give the impression that it was trying to muscle in on Russia's territory.
"We don't want to see competition between Russia on the one side and the EU on the other in that region, we want to see cooperation," Expansion Commissioner Fuele told Deutsche Welle.
Russia happy to cooperate
Healthy trade, especially in natural gas, keeps EU-Russian relations stable
The government in Russia is also largely unfazed by the EU's involvement in the former Soviet region, and says that provided Moscow and Brussels are pulling in similar directions, the policy will help all concerned.
"We all want to make sure that the countries who happen to be neighbors of both the European Union and the Russian Federation are stable, prosperous and peaceful, of course," Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said of the ENP. "I believe we can discuss many things with the EU that would be helpful in bringing about this outcome."
Lavrov added that it was to be expected that both the EU and Russia both look to cooperate with their neighbors with various organizations, institutions and programs.
"The main thing is that these cooperative arrangements, these integration processes on both sides are not contradicting each other, but rather are made mutually compatible and complimentary."
Current concerns, future questions
Relations between the EU and Russia have been strained occasionally in recent years, most dramatically during the brief war between Georgia and Russia in 2008. Repeated natural gas payment disputes between Russia and Ukraine, a key transit nation for Europe, have also led to occasional gas delivery shortfalls for some EU members in the past few years.
ENP member Georgia is hardly on good terms with Russia
Most recently, in June this year, a similar spat over gas payments between Russia and Belarus briefly left EU member Lithuania with next-to-no natural gas deliveries, a problem which elicited an uncharacteristically strong reaction from Brussels.
"It's not a problem for this one member state (Lithuania), it's a problem, it's an attack against the whole European Union," the EU's Energy Commissioner Guenther Oettinger said at the time.
These disagreements, however, were not really caused, exacerbated by, or related to the European Neighborhood Policy. Russia's current stance is that stability and prosperity in former Soviet satellite states is in Moscow's best interest, and EU help towards this goal is arguably a weight off the Kremlin's shoulders.
That positive Russian appraisal of the situation might change, however, if opportunities for EU membership were eventually incorporated into the ENP. Currently, participation in the scheme is neutral on this issue; it doesn't promise a country the chance of membership but it doesn't rule out the possibility either.
However, successful members of the ENP who make positive strides improving their economic and democratic credentials do, by extension, make themselves stronger candidates to one day pass the various accession criteria set by Brussels for would-be EU members.
Author: Christoph Hasselbach, Brussels (msh)
Editor: Andreas Illmer