Vondra: EU not ready to accept Eastern Partnership countries

Alexandr VondraPrague - The European Union would not be ready any time soon to accept into its ranks the six former Soviet countries that the 27- member bloc hopes to bring closer through its Eastern Partnership initiative, an EU official said Monday.

"Let's understand that the European Union is not ready to accept a single one of those six countries into its ranks," said outgoing Czech Vice-Premier for European Affairs Alexandr Vondra, whose country chairs the EU until June 30.

Vondra told a news conference that none of the six countries - Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine - was "ready for membership in the European Union."

He added that the scheme was designed "to bridge the period between today and the distant future" that could perhaps see membership talks begin.

EU leaders, at their latest top-level meeting, approved a plan to offer aid and partnership deals to the six countries.

The scheme, which does not offer full EU membership to the six, would boost ties with countries like Armenia but raises worries that it could further delay membership for a country such as Ukraine.

The initiative was proposed by Sweden and Poland as an Eastern counter-weight to the French-backed scheme to reinforce the EU's ties in the Mediterranean.

The policy, also seen as an EU bid to curb Moscow's influence in its own neighbourhood, gained further ground after the Russian invasion of Georgia in August 2008.

Vondra said the plan aimed to boost sovereignty, democracy and a market economy in those countries so that they would not be left in "a vacuum."

The outgoing vice-premier confirmed that the programme would be launched at an informal summit in Prague on May 7.

Outgoing Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek, whose centre-right cabinet resigned on March 26 after losing a vote of no-confidence in Parliament, may then still serve as EU president.

Czech political party leaders, forging a deal on a new caretaker premier and early polls late on Sunday, plan to ask President Vaclav Klaus not to appoint an interim government before May 9.

Vondra also reiterated that the EU plans to make a decision on inviting Belarus' President Alexander Lukashenko, who holds a tight grip on his country, at the last minute.

Also in Prague on May 7, Czech and Swedish premiers, representing current and upcoming EU presidencies, and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso are planned to meet social partners to discuss labour market issues amid the economic crisis, Vondra said. (dpa)