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Merkel sets tone for EU summit with eastern partners


EU-parliamentGerman Chancellor Angela Merkel cautioned the EU’s eastern partners Thursday not to expect too much of the bloc while warning Russia to mend its ways over Ukraine if it wanted to rejoin the international community.

At the same time, Merkel, who has played a key role in searching for a peaceful solution to the Ukraine conflict, made clear Russia had no reason to fear closer ties between the 28-nation bloc and six of its Soviet-era satellites.

“The Eastern Partnership is not aimed against anyone, especially not against Russia,” Merkel told the German parliament before leaving for the two-day summit in the Latvian capital Riga.

“We will not accept thinking in terms of spheres of influence in the Europe of the 21st century,” she said, adding that the six states did not face an “either-or” choice between Russia and the EU.

EU leaders will reaffirm their committment to developing ties with Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, according to a draft communique seen by AFP.

They aim to build on the November 2013 Vilnius summit which ended in chaos when Ukraine’s then president, the pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych, baulked at signing an EU association accord alongside Georgia and Moldova.

His refusal sparked massive pro-EU protests which ousted him in February 2014, leading to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and a bloody conflict in eastern Ukraine with pro-Russian rebels.

Russia desperately tried to prevent Ukraine signing the Association Agreement but pro-Western President Petro Poroshenko completed the deal last year.

– EU trims partnership ambitions –

Poroshenko has said repeatedly he wants his country to join the EU but all the signs are that this can only be a very long-term objective at best.

The Eastern Partnership is “not an instrument” of EU enlargement policy, Merkel said.

“We must not therefore arouse false expectations which we cannot later fulfil,” she added.

As the Ukraine crisis deepened last year, it revealed deep differences within the bloc over how to deal with Russia.

EU foreign affairs head Federica Mogherini says the bloc has to find a modus vivendi with Moscow beyond the immediate crisis.

Against this backdrop, the EU announced in March it would adjust policy towards its neighbours by taking into account their specific circumstances and, crucially, their links with other countries.

Moscow appears to have noticed the change, with recent exchanges slightly more positive than a few months ago.

“We only want one thing … for these ties to not be built at the expense of the Russian Federation’s legitimate interests,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in Brussels Tuesday.

– Crimea is key –

Merkel however also warned Russia it could not think about returning to the Group of Seven major industrialised nations as long as it flouted international law in Ukraine — symbolised by the annexation of Crimea.

A draft declaration which condemns the Crimea annexation was meanwhile causing problems for Armenia and Belarus who have lost their early enthusiasm for the EU and joined the Eurasian Economic Union promoted by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Diplomatic sources said the two countries’ unwillingness to sign would likely be solved by putting Crimea in a separate document.

“Armenia and Belarus’ behaviour is logical: these two countries voted at the UN with Russia against the resolution condemning the annexation of Crimea. They are keeping their line and we keep ours,” one of the sources said.

– EU partnership benefits –

Under their EU Association Agreements, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine commit to political and civil society reforms intended to modernise their economies and establish democratic norms.

In return, they can expect greater access to the EU economy, one of the world’s biggest markets.

Moldova has won a visa-free accord with the EU but the bloc says Ukraine and Georgia still have work to do to come up to standard even if they have made considerable progress.

The two countries are pressing Brussels hard, with Georgia’s experience of a brief war with Russia in 2008 and Moscow’s backing of the Abkhazia and South Ossetia breakaway provinces a constant source of concern.

With a host of EU leaders in attendance, newly re-elected British Prime Minister David Cameron is eagerly awaited to see how he will go about re-negotiating Britain’s EU membership terms before an “in-out” referendum promised by 2017.

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras meanwhile is expected to meet Merkel as talks between Athens and its international creditors over its massive debt bailout are making marginal progress with an end-June deadline fast approaching.

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