When France was in charge during the second half of 2008, President Nicolas Sarkozy made relations with his country's Mediterranean rim neighbors the cornerstone of his six month EU presidency.
Membership in Sarkozy's "Club Med" was based on sharing a common Mediterranean coastline, so Morocco, Turkey, Israel and Syria met the geographical criteria. The idea was to provide an EU-Mediterranean forum for tackling regional issues such as illegal boat migration from Africa, combating terrorism and cleaning up the polluted sea.
The Mediterranean Union's inaugural summit last July represented a milestone in bringing the heads of state of Israel and its Middle East adversaries together in Paris, but the French EU initiative had already lost steam by the start of the Czech Republic's presidency in January 2009.
Now with less than two months left of Prague's beleaguered EU Presidency, the 27 nation bloc's priorities have shifted northwards and eastwards geographically. Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek was ousted last month and will be replaced on May 8 by an interim government.
Topolanek's successor Jan Fischer takes over the day after the EU launches its "Eastern Partnership" (EP) with six post-Soviet states- Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine- at a summit in Prague on May 7.
EU wants stable eastern neighbors
EU officials say that the goal of the initiative is to help stabilize and modernize the states created from the break-up of the former Soviet Union by bringing in free markets and pro-democracy reforms.
The Russia-Georgia war last August over the breakaway province of South Ossetia further underscored the EU's need to "engage more deeply with its eastern neighbors to stabilize the region," says Sabine Fischer, a Russia and CIS expert at the EU Institute for Security Studies (EUISS) in Paris.
Then there is Belarus, formerly called Belorussia or White Russia, which the EU has long regarded as the black sheep of the post-Soviet CIS states. Its president Alexander Lukashenko, who earned the reputation of being "Europe's last dictator" for his government's dubious human rights record, had even been placed under an EU travel ban, which was lifted last October.
But now that Lukaschenko has said he wants to normalize "difficult" relations with the EU, Belarus has been invited to participate in the Prague summit on a technical level. However Lukaschenko himself will not attend the summit sending instead his deputy Vladimir Semachko.
Russia makes some noise
Since Belarus is one of the Kremlin's closest allies, Russia foreign minister Sergei Lavrov expressed his dismay over the Eastern Partnership at a meeting with EU diplomats in Luxembourg on April 28, saying that "any processes leading to developments within the EU… should ensure no overlap in the post-Soviet area."
Although Moscow's political leaders see an encroachment on their former "sphere of influence", their bark is louder than their bite, according to Russia analysts.
"Russia's political leadership does not really feel threatened by the EU's rapprochement with the post-Soviet states," said Fischer.
"Its leaders are more relaxed with the EU, as opposed to NATO," she added.
Stefan Meister of the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) who sees the Eastern Partnership as a regional grouping similar to the Mediterranean Union, thinks that Lavrov might have felt slighted by being left out of the new initiative.
"But he also understands that this can be a typical EU initiative with a lot of talk, but maybe not much happening," he said.
Extension of existing EU structure
The Eastern Partnership, which would be embedded in an existing structure called the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP), emerged last year as the brainchild of Poland and Sweden.
ENP was created in 2004 when the EU expanded eastwards to include the former Soviet satellite states in the bloc, whose membership jumped from 15 to 25. Romania and Bulgaria later joined the EU in 2007.
Its initial objective was to minimize the impact of a new Iron Curtain between the enlarged EU and the neighboring post-Soviet states even further east, by offering a privileged partnership based on a commitment to democratic values and market principles.
The Eastern Partnership builds up a stronger regional dimension that goes further than the ENP, says Oksana Antonenko, a senior Russia analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.
ENP offers bilateral relations with all countries that border the entire EU by land and sea, including the Mediterranean Union countries, whereas the EP is a multilateral agreement involving only six countries, she explained.
"The EP opens the door to potentially deeper multi-speed integration with the EU on matters such as visa-free travel or free trade," said Antonenko, who explained that member states could keep progressing to a higher level of cooperation with the EU "a la carte" on a specific issue.
Not a stepping stone to join the EU
The partnership offers carrots to encourage political and economic reforms, but it is not a stepping stone to eventual EU membership, says DGAP's Meister, who characterizes the EP as an alternative to joining the EU.
"It brings the six (CIS) states closer to the value system of the EU and offers them something like a customs union, but maybe not what they really want - the perspective of EU membership down the road," he said.
Ukraine is eager to join the EU club, but the bloc is suffering from enlargement fatigue and the Lisbon Treaty, that is supposed to streamline decision-making, still hangs in the balance.
One of the Lisbon Treaty's goals is to create a more permanent EU presidency filled by a high profile politician for a period of two-and-a-half years to replace the current six month rotating system.
When the Czech term ends at the end of June, the Swedes will take over, a stroke of luck for the Eastern Partnership, according to Fischer.
"The Swedes are going to put a strong emphasis on this (northeastern) region," she said. "After all, the EP was their initiative."
Author: Diana Fong
Editor: Susan Houlton