Saturday

19th Jan 2019

Analysis

The EU’s shrinking enlargement perspective

  • Is the Eastern Partnership becoming a Zhiguli partnership? (Photo: Igor Mazurov)

Pro-enlargement wording in EU declarations on ties with former Soviet states is set to hit an all-time low at the Riga summit on 21 May.

It might sound like literary criticism, but diplomats fight tooth and nail over the vocabulary of joint statements at the EU’s meetings, every two years, with Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine.

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The texts are important markers of where relations are going.

The “Eastern Partnership” policy on closer ties was launched in 2009 in Prague, the brainchild of two hawkish foreign ministers who no longer hold the post: Poland’s Radek Sikorksi and Sweden’s Carl Bildt.

The first declaration spoke of EU reforms “facilitating approximation towards the European Union”.

The next one, in Warsaw in 2011, went further, saying EU leaders “acknowledge the European aspirations and the European choice of some partners”.

The Vilnius text, in 2013, went even further. It “reaffirm[ed] their acknowledgement of the European aspirations and the European choice of some partners” and pledged to “support those who seek an ever closer relationship with the EU”.

It sounded almost like the Thessaloniki declaration of 2003, when the EU told Western Balkan countries they have “unequivocal support” for their “European perspective” and that “the future of the Balkans is within the European Union”.

Then Euromaidan and the Ukraine war happened.

The draft Riga text, seen by EUobserver, is weaker than even Prague.

It says only that the former Soviet states are entitled to a sovereign foreign policy, or, in other words, that EU countries “reaffirm the sovereign right of each partner freely to choose the level of ambition and the goals to which it aspires in its relations with the European Union”.

The reform front-runners, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine, are also unhappy that Riga drops the Vilnius principle that “those partners most engaged in reforms will benefit most from their relationship with the EU, in line with the incentive-based approach (‘more-for-more’)”.

It was meant to yield more EU money. But the Riga draft speaks only of an “objective to develop strengthened, differentiated relations”.

There is step-by-step progress in other areas: on free trade; on visa-free travel; and on security co-operation.

But for Chisinau, Kiev, and Tbilisi, and for the Ukrainian people who risked death waving EU flags on the Maidan, enlargement is the bottom line.

This is why Kiev, in its wishlist of amendments to the Riga text, also seen by EUobserver, calls for EU leaders to “acknowledge that the European perspective for … willing eastern European partners constitutes a driving force for successful future democratic and economic reforms”.

They are unlikely to get it.

One EU diplomat told this website “the paragraph … is a no-go zone for most member states”.

Another EU source said Germany is the main opponent: “All the keys are in Berlin. That’s why Rinkevics [the Latvian foreign minister] will fly there next week to find a deal [on the joint text]. But so far, Germany is adamant there’ll be no movement, especially on the [EU] aspirations of Eastern Partnership countries”.

Free trade

Germany is also pushing to minimise progress on free trade.

The Vilnius text said “implementation” of the “deep and comprehensive” free trade pacts with Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine “will signify a fundamental shift towards” the EU.

Riga says “implementation … will be a top priority of the EU”.

But it also notes “the importance of continuing the trilateral consultations on EU-Ukraine DCFTA [free-trade pact] implementation … using the existing flexibilities available to the contracting parties”.

“Trilateral” means the EU, Ukraine, and Russia. Nobody in Brussels, Washington, or Kiev thinks Moscow has any other intention than to weaken and delay the trade measures.

But Berlin forced Kiev to accept the format in the name of peace-building.

The worrying precedent, and symbolism, of giving Russia a say on bilateral EU relations has equally rattled Georgia, Moldova, and even Azerbaijan, which is, after Belarus, the least pro-EU eastern "partner". All three, last week, urged EU states to strike out the “trilateral” paragraph.

The partner states’ ambitions are also bigger than the Riga text in other areas.

Ukraine wants the text to “confirm … willingness to introduce visa-free travel for Ukrainian and Georgian citizens in 2016 [Moldova already has it]”.

The draft text says the EU “look[s] forward to completion by Ukraine and Georgia of the implementation of the 2nd phase of their visa-liberalisation action plans”.

Negative signals

The Riga roll-back on enlargement comes amid other negative signals.

When European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker took up office last year he told the Western Balkans that “no further enlargement will take place over the next five years”.

He downsized the enlargement directorate and renamed the enlargement commissioner the commissioner for “enlargement negotiations”.

The last commission report on the Balkans, in October 2014, recommended no new formal steps.

It did recommend opening two new chapters with Turkey. But few in Brussels, or London and Washington, two of Turkey’s biggest EU advocates, believes the Muslim country of more than 75 million people will ever join.

This is why the EU, on Tuesday, opted to extend its Customs Union with Turkey to new sectors, including services, public procurement, and agriculture - to create perception that relations are moving forward, a British idea.

Meanwhile, Russia is doing everything it can to hold back progress.

Its soft power machinations aside, Russia's invasion of east Ukraine will, at best, create a new frozen conflict on the model of Transniestria in Moldova and Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia.

Russia denies it has troops in Ukraine.

Russian troops

But an investigative report by the late opposition leader, Boris Nemtsov, published in Moscow on Tuesday, says at least 220 Russian soldiers have been killed in the conflict.

A European Parliament report, endorsed by the foreign affairs committee in Brussels the same day, says there can be no “business as usual” with Russia until it stops the “hybrid war launched against … Ukraine”.

Ukraine's wishlist for Riga also says EU states should “call for immediate withdrawal of Russian military assets and troops from the territory of Ukraine”.

The EU draft condemns the “illegal annexation of Crimea” but it says nothing on Russian troops in east Ukraine.

The emerging trend, of mollifying Russia for the sake of a ceasefire, was on show in Sochi, Russia, on Tuesday, when US secretary of state John Kerry met his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, and Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

US diplomats prior to the meeting told press in Brussels that Russia is “pouring troops and arms” into the region.

But Kerry, in a chummy tone on talks between “Sergei and I”, said only that “we ... disagree on certain components of the walkup to it [the Ukraine crisis] or certain facts [Russian troops]”.

He urged Ukraine leader Petro Poroshenko not to retake Dontesk airport in east Ukraine, portraying Poroshenko as an aggressor, and promised Russia that “US and EU sanctions can begin to be rolled back” if it complies with ceasefire terms.

For his part, Gabrielius Landsbergis, the centre-right Lithuanian MEP who drafted the EU parliament report, told this website that Russia is as intransigent as ever.

Recalling a recent meeting with Aleksey Pushkov, the chairman of the Duma's foreign affairs committee, he said it was “almost impossible to find common ground” on Ukraine.

Zhiguli partnership?

A Ukrainian source said the EU’s waning appetite for enlargement is partly due to internal fatigue and partly “because of Russian objections”.

Big-ticket items aside, he said the EU also rejected “90 percent” of Ukraine’s proposals for “concrete, visible” projects designed to cultivate pro-EU sentiment, such as funds for Ukraine’s inland waterway transport from the Union’s “Ten” infrastructure budget.

“The EU doesn’t want an ambitious Eastern Partnership policy because it lacks vision on the future of the region”, the Ukrainian contact noted.

“They say they want us to come closer to the EU. We want to do it in a four-wheel drive BMW. But they’re saying we should do it in a Russian-made car, an old Zhiguli, in order not to irritate the Kremlin”.

Agenda

Riga and red tape on EU agenda this WEEK

EU leaders will take stock of their eastern neighbourhood at a summit in Riga this week, while the commission unveils an anti-red tape plan.

Eastern Partnership: In search of meaning

Twenty-five EU leaders and six former Soviet states are meeting in the shadow of the Ukraine crisis and amid divergent views on future relations.

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