Monday,
05 July 2004
Caucasus: EU Commissioner Tours South Caucasus To Explain 'New
Neighborhood' Offer

Czech Republic World News Services
By Ahto Lobjakas

Janez Potocnik, a junior EU commissioner working with enlargement
commissioner Guenter Verheugen, today begins a four-day tour of the
South Caucasus. He will meet the leaders of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and
Georgia to talk about the EU's recent decision to include the three
countries in its "new neighborhood" policy.

Brussels, 5 July 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Janez Potocnik is a junior
commissioner. But he is by far the highest-ranking EU official to
tour the South Caucasus region in recent years.

As a commissioner for a new EU member state, Slovenia, Potocnik works
with the enlargement commissioner, Guenter Verheugen. Verheugen is in
charge of the EU's "new neighborhood" program, which offers closer
ties to some EU neighbors.

Although not directly responsible for the new neighborhood program,
Potocnik fully represents the views of the European Commission.

He will spend this week traveling to Georgia (5-6 July), Azerbaijan
(6-7 July), and Armenia (7-8 July). Potocnik's visit will emphasize
the EU's renewed interest in those three countries. Following
Georgia's "Rose Revolution" last year, the EU was quick to bring them
into the new neighborhood policy. The formal offer was finalized on 14
June.

Jean-Christophe Filori is a European Commission spokesman. He
explained to RFE/RL today what the offer will mean for the three
countries: "The next steps are to consider the possibility of setting
up a so-called action plan with those three countries -- setting the
[reform] priorities they should address. And, on our side, offering
an approximation with the European Union. That, as you know, could
eventually -- but in the longer term -- lead very far toward a share
in the internal market, for instance, or [alignment] with several EU
policies, like environment or [energy and transport] networks."

Filori said Potocnik will tell the three South Caucasus governments
that they could eventually have a voice in Europe.

Potocnik will not offer precise details of the financial aid likely to
accompany new neighborhood membership. EU member states are still
debating the contents of the bloc's next budget for the years
2007-2013.

But EU officials say Potocnik will reiterate the bloc's willingness to
take a more active approach to the region's many conflicts. The bloc
will not act as a mediator. But it will use incentives inherent in
closer ties to foster compromise.

Filori says this strategy has proved successful elsewhere: "Take, for
instance, the example of Romania and Hungary, the issue of the
Hungarian minority. Through a very early and intense political
dialogue, we [found] a solution. And we really hope that with this
prospect of getting closer to the European Union we will also have the
possibility of a much better political dialogue with [the South
Caucasus] countries."

The EU promotes its new neighborhood policy as distinct from bloc
membership but offering many of the same benefits.

Filori said the EU is not likely to discuss anytime soon a further EU
expansion that would bring countries like Georgia, Armenia and
Azerbaijan into the bloc: "We can never say never, of course -- we
will have to see. What we're trying to do now is to set the prospect
for the foreseeable future. And in the foreseeable future, we have an
approach allowing for much closer involvement of those countries in
Europe, and a much closer involvement of the EU in those countries --
much closer relations. It would be a first step. Let's seize this
offer first."

The EU has made it clear that it will consider developing relations
with the three countries on the basis of individual merit. So far,
Georgia has emerged as a clear leader.

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