BRUSSELS (RFE/RL)–The European Union governments have given the formal go-ahead to the start of negotiations with Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia on “association agreements” that would significantly upgrade their relations with the EU.
The agreements stem from the EU’s Eastern Partnership program that offers six former Soviet republics the prospect of closer integration with the 27-nation bloc in return for political and economic reforms.
The bloc’s executive European Commission said on Tuesday that foreign ministers of EU member states adopted the previous day “negotiating directives” for the future signing of such deals with the three South Caucasus states.
“The adoption of these negotiating directives is a clear sign of our strong commitment to further deepen the relationship between the EU and the countries of the South Caucasus, on the basis of shared values and principles, including democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights,” Catherine Ashton, the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, said in a statement.
“I look forward to the launch of negotiations on these ambitious and comprehensive agreements with Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia,” she added.
Ashton made clear that the talks will be based on “the principles of inclusiveness and differentiation,” seemingly implying that a lack of progress in reform in one country will not impede the EU’s integration with others.
That the EU intends to speed up the planned association talks was indicated by Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos during his tour of the three South Caucasus nations in March. The negotiation process is expected to take years and run parallel to supposedly sweeping reforms in each of them.
The EU pledged last month to provide Armenia with 157 million euros ($204 million) in assistance designed to support the implementation of such reforms promised by the Armenian government. The pledge came after Armenian and EU officials worked out a plan of relevant actions, which Yerevan is due to take from 2011-2013.
The so-called “national indicative program” has not yet been made public, and publicized details of the promised assistance remain sketchy. In an April 6 statement, the European Commission said only that it plans to spend at least 32 million euros of the aid package on “comprehensive institution building” and another 7 million euros on “cohesion policy.”
“The assistance will focus on three priority areas – democratic structures and good governance; trade and investment, regulatory alignment and reform; socio-economic reform and sustainable development,” said the statement.
It is not clear whether the EU regards the holding of elections recognized as free and fair by the international community as a necessary condition for Armenia’s and its two neighbors’ successful participation in Eastern Partnership. European officials have been cautious in criticizing the disputed Armenian presidential election of February 2008 and the ensuing government crackdown on the Armenian opposition.