European Union membership could become more realistic for nations on the bloc's eastern periphery in the next decade if they become "a little bit like Norway or Switzerland," Poland's foreign minister says.
Radek Sikorski spoke Thursday ahead of a two-day EU summit on the Eastern Partnership, an initiative launched two years ago by Poland and Sweden aimed at deepening EU integration with six eastern European countries: Georgia, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Poland has emerged as a key European advocate of deeper EU integration with the region, eager to see its post-communist neighbors evolve into stable, prosperous democracies. But expanding the 27-nation bloc is finding little support these days among West European countries, who are mainly focused on the European debt crisis and upheavals in the Arab world.
Polish leaders hopes the summit, which comes during its six-month EU presidency, will revive interest in the eastern project.
Sikorski said EU membership "at this point is distant" for the countries, some of whom have been backsliding on democratic standards recently. He urged them to adopt laws based on EU models, saying that was their only hope for eventual membership.
"If you become legally speaking and commercially speaking a little bit like Norway or Switzerland, then things become possible. Of course if you don't, you won't (join)," Sikorski said at a conference organized by two Warsaw think tanks ahead of the summit.
He expressed disappointment that Belarusian Foreign Minister Sergei Martynov _ who was invited despite the authoritarianism of President Alexander Lukashenko's regime _ refused to join the summit.
"It's another step in Belarus' self-isolation," Sikorski said.
He criticized Lukashenko for falsifying elections last year and said the EU would withhold any financial help until Lukashenko shows steps toward democratic reform.
"(Lukashenko) has an interesting idea for keeping power: taking democratic standards from the East and money from the West. This we cannot accept," Sikorski said.
A former communist country with a leading role in the 1989 revolutions that shook off Communist regimes across Europe, Poland wants to see its eastern neighbors build strong trade and investment ties with the West that would distance them from Russia's sphere of influence.
"This is not a geopolitical project, but it's fulfillment will have geopolitical implications," Sikorski said.
The summit is to focus heavily on Ukraine, which has been negotiating free trade and association agreements with the EU _ a milestone for the former Soviet state in its hoped-for path toward deeper integration with its wealthier neighbors.
The landmark deals, however, are now threatened by signs of Kiev's wavering commitment to democratic standards, including the detention and trial of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, which EU and U.S. leaders have criticized as politically motivated.
Poland's President Bronislaw Komorowski met with his Ukrainian counterpart Viktor Yanukovych ahead of the summit. During a brief news conference he focused on Ukraine's progress, congratulating the county for its "successes" and did not mention the Tymoshenko trial.
"Poland continues to support the European aspirations of Ukraine, our most important neighbor," Komorowski said, speaking alongside Yanukovych.