Brussels offers favoured status to boost former Soviet republics

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The Independent Online

The European Union reached out to three former Soviet republics in the Caucasus yesterday, promising new ties to boost economic growth and tackle illegal migration and organised crime.

The European Union reached out to three former Soviet republics in the Caucasus yesterday, promising new ties to boost economic growth and tackle illegal migration and organised crime.

The European Commission said Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia should be given status as "near neighbours" which could develop into a free trade pact. But they were also told they had no prospect of EU membership for the foreseeable future. Belarus was singled out for arms-length treatment because of its dictatorial government.

In 2007, the EU is due to expand again, admitting Bulgaria and Romania, while Croatia is expected to start membership negotiations shortly. A decision on talks with Turkey will be taken in December and a bloc of Balkan nations is vying to join.

But the EU wants to dampen expectations that it can enlarge indefinitely. The commissioner for enlargement, Günter Verheugen, said: "With the exception of the Baltic states [which joined the EU on May 1], the western border of the former Soviet Union will be, for a very long time, the eastern border of the EU."Though Poland has invested much in improving relations with Belarus, Mr Verheugen was scathing about the leadership in Minsk. "I do not think it is time to discuss contractual relations with an authoritarian government that does not respect human rights and is violating European standards," he said.

The EU already has a programme of co-operation with Russia, Ukraine and a host of other nations.

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