Poland and Sweden have in a joint strategy paper indicated the EU is unlikely to invite any of its post-Soviet neighbours to join the bloc in the next 10 years.
Polish foreign minister Radek Sikorski and Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt set out their vision for the EU's future relations with neighbouring countries in a letter on 6 October to EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and neighbourhood commissioner Stefan Fuele.
The letter noted that Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine could one day become EU members, unlike countries in north Africa and the Middle East. "Some [countries bordering the EU] are European and thus enjoy special status in accordance with the treaties, others will remain neighbours of Europe," it said.
But the four-page-letter nowhere said the EU should give the group 'an enlargement perspective.' It instead set out an everything-but-enlargement vision in which the six gradually adopt the EU rulebook, the acquis communautaire, move toward free trade and visa-free travel and take part in more EU projects, including police, military and migration-related schemes.
To this end, it called for a "well-prepared and substantial" summit between EU leaders and the six countries in Budapest on 26 May.
It also recommended that the EU split in two its European Neighbourhood and Partnership Instrument (ENPI), a €1.7 billion a year budget line, currently used to fund projects in all 16 of its neighbourhood policy countries.
Around €600 million a year would go to the eastern group, on top of a €90 million a year special allocation for the six under the EU's Eastern Partnership policy.
"The development of relations with the two sets of neighbours has followed increasingly differentiated tracks. Given the differences between the two groups of countries, this is a logical development," the letter said. "We should take into consideration dividing the ENPI into two separate financial instruments, one for the east and one for the south, in mid-term perspective."
Mr Sikorski and Mr Bildt wrote to Brussels in response to a questionnaire sent out in July by Mr Fuele to all 27 EU capitals and 16 neighbouring states.
The questionnaire asked among other things how the governments see EU relations developing in the period up to 2020. "The big question behind all this is - what is the endgame? If out of this process we get some mandate to specify our endgame it could be very good," an EU official said.
EUobserver understands that the letter sent in by Ukrainian foreign minister Kostyantyn Gryshchenko said boldly that Kiev's goal is EU accession and that this can be achieved by 2020. It criticised the existing European Neighbourhood Policy, saying EU-Ukraine relations in recent years have progressed "not because of, but despite" it.
"It is very clear that the eastern countries want to have a clear membership perspective. Some are pressing to get it more quickly, the others also want it, but are not begging for it," an EU diplomatic contact familiar with the response letters of some of the neighbouring states, said. "Even with Belarus, for us it is clear that they are in principle interested."
The omission of any wording on accession in the Polish-Swedish text is significant because Warsaw and Paris are the main architects of the EU's current policy toward post-Soviet countries. Some diplomats from enlargement-friendly Poland had in the past dared to hope the Polish EU presidency would broker an enlargement promise for Kiev in late 2011.
Most of the other big players in the EU are openly hostile to further expansion, leaving aside the special case of the western Balkans. "For us, it is not on the table," a French diplomat said. The German response to the Fuele questionnaire also said nothing on enlargement.
EU foreign ministers will in Luxembourg on Monday chew over the responses which have come in so far. The EU 27 and EU neighbouring 16 foreign ministers plan to hold a meeting on future relations in February. Ms Ashton and Mr Fuele will then issue a communication on reform of the European Neighbourhood Policy in the run-up to the Budapest summit.