BRUSSELS, Nov 27 (Reuters) - EU leaders will meet their counterparts from eastern Europe and the southern Caucasus in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius this week to discuss closer trade and political ties, in a bid to bolster Europe's influence in the former Soviet bloc.
Following are explanations of what the European Union is hoping to achieve in the region and how the participating countries can benefit.
WHAT IS THE EASTERN PARTNERSHIP?
The European Union launched the Eastern Partnership project in May 2009 in an effort to support democratic and market economy reforms in six countries in eastern Europe and the southern Caucasus: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.
EU institutions have earmarked about 2.5 billion euros ($3.4 billion) between 2010 and 2013 to fund these goals. They use the money to promote the creation of democratic state institutions, environmental protection, industrial reforms, energy security and to combat poverty.
WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS FOR PARTICIPATING COUNTRIES?
The programme offers the six participating countries closer economic integration with the European Union, provided they meet certain conditions. They can, over time, sign wide-ranging trade agreements which aim to give companies from participating states easier access to business in the EU.
Once signed, the agreements would reduce barriers on trade imports and exports, as well as on financial services and government procurement, among other sectors.
Greater mobility of their citizens in Europe is also part of the project. The European Union wants to make it easier for them to travel to the EU, and ultimately offer visa-free access.
HOW DOES THE EU BENEFIT?
In return for easier access to the European Union, participating states have to introduce rules to combat corruption, organised crime and trafficking in people, drugs and weapons. This, in turn, lowers the risk of crime spilling into the EU.
EU companies can also win easier access to markets in the six countries, which have a combined population of about 75 million.
Closer ties with the region could also help the European Union improve the security of its energy supplies.
HOW MUCH TRADE DOES EUROPE DO WITH PARTICIPATING STATES?
In the first six months of this year, the European Union recorded a trade surplus of 3.3 billion euros with the six states. Germany, Italy and Poland are the biggest exporters to the area, with about half of all of European exports to the six countries going to Ukraine.
WHAT WILL HAPPEN IN VILNIUS?
Georgia and Moldova are due to endorse the completion of negotiations on their trade agreements with the EU.
Ukraine was expected to sign such a deal but Kiev has shelved the plans, saying it preferred to revive close contacts with Russia.
A visa facilitation agreement with Azerbaijan will be signed, allowing Azeris to get EU visas faster, for less money and with fewer supporting documents.
Georgia will also achieve closer cooperation with the European Union in its crisis management missions, while Ukraine will complete preparations for close cooperation in aviation. ($1 = 0.7374 euros)
(Reporting by Justyna Pawlak; Editing by Pravin Char) Keywords: UKRAINE EU/
(Justyna.Pawlak@thomsonreuters.com)(+32 2 287 6853 x82853)
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