Who has a greater right to support from the EU? The Arab revolutions or the political opposition in Eastern European countries? Within the EU, the debate has sparked conflict between the Southern and Eastern member states, which European leaders will be hoping to defuse later this week. A recent proposal presented by six Southern European countries to transfer financial support from the EU’s Eastern Neighbours to countries on the southern shores of the Mediterranean has prompted a dismayed reaction from Central European governments.

France, Spain, Greece, Slovenia, Cyprus and Malta are arguing that the significant disparities which characterise the distribution of the EU budget for neighbouring countries “are not justified”: for each member of their populations, Egypt and Tunisia receive just 1.8 and 7 euros respectively, while Moldova benefits from more than 25 euros per capita. Worse still, it now appears that the funds to help countries to the south are all but exhausted.

Support for south cannot be allowed to undermine aid for east

Southern member states, which have to contend with most of the pressure exerted by a huge influx of refugees in the wake of the Arab revolutions, are arguing that events on the other side of the Mediterranean are of major importance for the EU. Central European governments, who have responded by contesting figures on the latest inflow of migrants, insist that the same is true of Europe’s eastern borders. They are also keen to highlight ongoing tensions prompted by "latent conflicts" on Europe’s eastern borders, where fear of Russia remains a major preoccupation — a fact that was clearly evident at the Global Security Forum in Bratislava earlier this month.

The region, which was traumatised by the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia over South Ossetia, is facing the prospect of yet more conflict in Nagorno-Karabak. The enclave “is about to explode” insists Oksana Antonenko of London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies, who points to the same warning signs that preceded fighting in South Ossetia. Given the fragility of Central Asian governments, "the region will face major dangers, especially when US troops withdraw from Afghanistan. I am very pessimistic," she says.

At the Forum, the foreign ministers of Georgia and Moldova spoke of the merits of European support for modernisation in their countries, while their Hungarian colleague, Janos Martonyi, fired a warning shot in response to the demands expressed by Southern Member States: "Support for the south cannot be allowed to undermine aid for the east."

Financial difficulties are only part of ENP problem

The stage has been set for a heated meeting on 10 March, when Stefan Füle, the European Commissioner with responsibility for the EU’s Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) will attempt to calm the mood in Central Europe: "No one is suggesting that the EU should focus all of its efforts on the South. No, our commitment to the East will remain unchanged."

Explaining that the existing budget does not allow for an easy reallocation of funds, the Commissioner nonetheless pointed out that "we succeeded in finding an extra 17 million euros for Tunisia. And we are also examining ways to use the existing allocation of 80 million euros for the 2007-2013 period more efficiently. As for Egypt, a number of options are still under consideration. And we are also developing a new approach in consultation with monetary institutions."

Financial difficulties are only part of the problem for the ENP, which historically has been characterised by two significantly different types of approach. In the Arab world, where it supported regimes to safeguard the flow of oil, links with opponents of current governments were not a priority. In contrast, the policy towards Eastern countries has been marked by cooperation with civil society and the political opposition.

"We will have to define very clear objectives"

That said, in the context of diminishing hopes for democracy in countries like Belarus, the situation in the region on Europe’s eastern borders increasingly resembles the one that prevailed on the other side of the Mediterranean before the current wave of revolutions, which has now become the subject of some regret. Recently, Stefan Füle presented an official apology for Europe’s long-standing policy of supporting dictatorial regimes.

In the future, things will have to change. The ENP is an instrument to achieve a goal. But what exactly is this goal? Accession to the EU? Access to European markets? Or quite simply to ensure that our neighbours do not constitute a threat to the EU? As it stands, we do not have a clear answer on this, admits Stefan Füle. Once it has been re-evaluated, the funds made available by the new ENP will be distributed differently.

"We will have to define very clear objectives on human rights, respect for the rule of law, democracy, good governance, and on the fight against terrorism. The quantity of aid on offer will be directly determined by progress towards these objectives." In short, the new slogan for Europe’s policy towards its near neighbours will be: "More for more."