EU shifts focus from enlargement to neighborhood policy

When former Austrian foreign minister Benita Ferrero-Waldner took up her post as the European Union's new external affairs chief to succeed Chris Patten a year ago, few would have captured the nuanced difference in the title.

Waldner began her new job as "Commissioner for External Relations and European Neighborhood Policy," instead of "Commissioner for External Relations," a title held by Patten and his predecessors.

A series of stepped up diplomatic moves by the EU signals a vital strategic change in its external policy: Neighborhood policy has moved to center stage and is replacing enlargement to become a new priority of the 25-member group.

"Joining the EU" had once been a trump card for the bloc in handling relations with its neighbors.

After dramatic changes took place in East Europe in the 1990's, a top priority of the EU foreign policy was to draw these countries into its own family. For one reason, the perceived threat from the former Soviet Union was still haunting the EU at that time.

A series of meetings involving the EU in the past two months presented a clearer picture of the shift on the bloc's policy focus.

The EU sent dozens of police to Palestine to monitor the operation of the Lafah crossing point on Nov 25. Two days later, the bloc hosted the first EU-Mediterranean summit in Barcelona, Spain.

Last Thursday, the first EU-Ukrainian summit was also held in Kiev.

Observers believed that so many "first" diplomatic moves clearly indicated that the EU has become more eager than before to elevate the so-called "neighborhood policy" above enlargement, that is, to foster good relations with neighboring countries and regions.

Ten East European countries joined the EU on May 1, 2004, stirring up calls for "digesting" of the biggest-ever enlargement within the bloc.

A debate over Turkey's accession into the EU has become more heated across the European continent. Partly because of reluctance to see Turkey's future entry, French and Dutch voters said "No" to the EU Constitution in May and June.

The EU has slowed down its enlargement steps. Some observers say the bloc will only take Balkan countries into account for membership in the near future.

After taking office, Commissioner Waldner has been active in promoting "neighborhood policy." The EU has launched talks and relevant action plans with a number of countries like Egypt, Georgia and Azerbaijan this year.

"The objective of the European Neighborhood Policy is to share the benefits of the EU's 2004 enlargement with neighboring countries, that is, stability, security and well-being -- in a way that is distinct from EU membership," the European Commission (EC) says on its website.

"It is designed to prevent the emergence of new dividing lines between the enlarged Union and its neighbors and to offer them the chance to participate in various EU activities through close political, security, economic and cultural cooperation," it adds.

The EU adopts three different approaches toward its neighboring countries to the east, to the south and in the Middle East.

For former Soviet republics to the east, the EU strives to make them out of Russia's influence and create a buffer zone in the region.

Observers noted that when the so-called "Orange Revolution" broke out in Ukraine last year, the EU immediately joined hands with the United States to fan the flames of violence that toppled the pro-Russia government of former Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich.

The bloc has offered the pro-Western regime of President Viktor Yushchenko a number of incentives this year, like market economy status and WTO membership.

In pro-Russia Belarus, the EU has made no attempt to conceal its intention to overthrow the government of President Alexander Lukashenko.

While giving support to the opposition in Belarus, the EC recently also announced plans to fund Euronews, a pan-Europe TV channel, to broadcast "pro-democracy" programs in Belarus.

In the Middle East, the EU has spared no effort to push forward the peace process in the region.

While continuing its moral and huge economic support for the Palestinians, the EU sent 70 police officers in November to ensure the smooth operation of the Lafah crossing point, the first and only pass linking Palestinians to the outside world.

The EU has been much more patient than the United States, however, over the Iran nuclear issue, insisting that diplomatic options has not been exhausted in resolving the thorny issue.

As for the countries facing the EU across the Mediterranean, the bloc has reviewed its strategy toward the region as terrorism and illegal immigration problems have witnessed a surged in recent years.

At the first EU-Mediterranean summit in November, the EU vowed to help boost economic development in the region. It plans to set up a free economic zone with the region by 2010.

The summit also passed a code of conduct on fighting terrorism, aiming to root out terrorism in the EU's neighboring areas.

People's Daily Online ---