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The EU launches programme to forge closer ties with six countries in Eastern Europe and the Southern Caucasus.

The ‘Eastern Partnership’ holds out the prospect of free-trade pacts, financial aid, help with energy security and visa-free travel to the EU for Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. For Europe, it could mean more stability and security on its eastern rim.

The region has gone through multiple crises since the collapse of the Soviet Union and remains troubled by unresolved conflicts. At a summit in Prague to launch the programme, President Barroso said the EU had a “vital interest” in stronger relations.

The partnership adds a specific eastern dimension to the EU’s umbrella policy for neighbouring countries. The urgent need for this was brought home by the Russia-Georgia conflict last summer and the Russia-Ukraine gas dispute in January. The recent unrest in Moldova has renewed concerns about stability in the region.

The six countries will receive increased financial assistance from the EU to help with political and economic reforms. Successful reforms may lead on to comprehensive Association Agreements with the EU, which would include free-trade pacts and commitments on energy security – important for EU countries whose oil and gas supplies transit the region from Russia.

The countries, former Soviet republics, face major challenges to democracy and the rule of law. Badly hit by the recession, they continue to struggle with the transition to market economies.

Alongside regional-development expertise, the EU is offering programmes to address economic and social disparities, and would consider opening up its labour market to workers from the partner countries. And visiting the EU could be made easier for travellers if the countries bring border controls up to EU standards.

Border management is one of the five key areas the EU wants to help with. The others are support for small businesses, connections between regional electricity grids, gas and oil pipelines from the Caspian Sea to Europe, and cooperation on disaster response.

The commission will add €350m in fresh money on top of the planned resources for 2010-13. Another €250m already earmarked for the region will be refocused to support the new programme.

Find out more on the EU's Eastern Partnership.

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