A “Reset” Button for Europe’s Backyard

STOCKHOLM – One year after the war in Georgia of last August, pushing the “reset” button on diplomatic relations is a popular endeavor nowadays. President Barack Obama recently journeyed to Moscow in order to “reset” strained United States-Russian ties. The European Union, though not in need of a “reset” because of strained ties with its eastern neighbors, is involved in a deep strategic reconstruction of those relations.

When the EU launched its new “Eastern Partnership” in May, the purpose was to promote further integration with the Union’s six immediate eastern neighbors – Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine. The global financial crisis had made an updated and strengthened policy for the EU’s eastern neighborhood an urgent need. Equally important was the fact that all the countries concerned expressed an ambition to move closer to the EU.

The Eastern Partnership – originating from a Polish/Swedish initiative – offers to the six countries a substantial upgrading and deepening of relations with the EU in key areas. In trade and economic relations, it clearly sets out the objective of establishing deep and comprehensive free-trade areas between the EU and the partner countries. It confirms full visa liberalization as a long-term goal (with visa facilitation agreements in the meantime), promises enhanced cooperation on energy security, diversification, and efficiency, and comes with dedicated programs and projects to help the neighbors in their integration and reform efforts in all these areas.

Sweden’s assumption of the EU Presidency this month should help these efforts. However, it comes at a time when the Union’s eastern neighborhood faces severe challenges, with the financial and economic crisis hitting many of the partner countries hard.