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Nov 18, 2010 | 13:23 GMT

4 mins read

Poland, Sweden Try to Revive the EU's Eastern Partnership

JOHN THYS/AFP/Getty Images
Summary
The Polish and Swedish foreign ministers visited Ukraine ahead of the Nov. 22 European Union-Ukraine summit. Their visit is tied to the EU's beleaguered Eastern Partnership program, as Warsaw and Stockholm try to convince Kiev that the program will soon be viable. However, there remain two key obstacles to the program — Russia and core European states led by Germany and France — that will limit its ability to counterbalance Russian influence in Eastern European states.
Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski and his Swedish counterpart, Carl Bildt, paid a one-day visit to Ukraine on Nov. 17 and met with Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich and Foreign Minister Kostyantyn Gryshchenko. The visit is connected to the European Union's Eastern Partnership (EP) program and comes just before the Nov. 22 EU-Ukraine summit. The message that the Polish and Swedish foreign ministers brought to Kiev was that these countries and the EP have not forgotten Ukraine. However, there are two key obstacles to the initiative's having any real effect in the region: Russia and the core European countries led by Germany and France. Launched in May 2009 and initiated by Poland and Sweden, the EP sought to build EU ties with former Soviet states Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. The goal was to (unofficially) challenge Russia's ability to influence these states by offering technical and financial assistance through programs such as infrastructure development and visa liberalization. But since its inception, the EP has been underfunded and has suffered from a lack of attention from Sweden, which is internally focused on a contentious election, causing the program to largely fall flat. A high-level Ukrainian diplomat recently told the media that the EP was "nothing" and that its funding was inadequate. This was particularly worrying for the future of the EP, as Ukraine — being the largest, most populous and most geopolitically strategic EP country — was the cornerstone of the program. Sikorski and Bildt visited Ukraine to reinvigorate the program and reassure the authorities in Kiev that the leaders of the EP remain interested before the EU-Ukraine summit convenes the following week. Sikorski said the European Union's attempts to build ties with Ukraine and other former Soviet countries will be accelerated next year, when Hungary and Poland will each hold the EU rotating presidency for six months. Sikorksi added that the previous history of the EP was a "gestation period" and there will be more EP initiatives under these presidencies, though he did not elaborate on what these initiatives will be. But there are reasons that the EP has not had much success. In February, Ukraine saw the starkest reversal of its pro-Western orientation of any former Soviet state with the victory of the pro-Russian Yanukovich in the country's presidential election over pro-Western candidate Viktor Yushchenko. Under Yanukovich, Ukraine built up ties with Russia across the political, economic and security spectra. Indeed, on the same day the Polish and Swedish foreign ministers were in Ukraine, Russian natural gas giant Gazprom and Ukraine's Naftogaz signed an agreement to begin a valuation of assets that could be contributed to a joint venture of the two firms. While Ukraine will certainly continue to cooperate with the Europeans in various economic and technical projects, Russia will do its best to undermine programs like the EP if Moscow deems they encroach on Ukraine's pro-Russian orientation. In addition to Russian obstacles to the EP, the program has also been stymied from within Europe itself. Sikorski has said the program is meant to prepare these countries for EU membership, but core EU members — most notably Germany and France — are against any further expansion of the bloc to Eastern European countries such as Ukraine. This is both because of recent EU financial problems (and subsequent political issues) leading to enlargement fatigue and the fact that Berlin and Paris are beginning to strengthen their ties with Moscow and do not wish to upset Russia by throwing their weight behind the EP and specifically by encroaching on Russia's turf. These discrepancies underline the fundamental difference between core European countries and those that abut the Eastern European countries, such as Poland and Sweden. Moving forward, it remains unclear to what extent Poland is committed to actually acting on behalf of the EP, as Warsaw has seen a thaw in relations with Russia under the leadership of Prime Minister Donald Tusk and President Bronislaw Komorowski. While Poland still is interested in establishing closer relations with Ukraine and Belarus, it knows it does not have the resources to do it on its own and needs help from a larger, Western European country. This is where the other founding member, Sweden, comes in. Sweden, as a large economy with traditional ties to the region, does have the necessary capital to make the EP more enticing than it has been previously, and Russia's renewed interest in the Baltics has provided incentive for Stockholm. So while there remain serious impediments — not least of which are Russia, Germany and France — a key question for the EP in the future will be the extent of Sweden's commitment to the program.

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