Sunday

26th May 2019

Eastern Partnership: In search of meaning

  • Tbilissi, the capital of Georgia. The EU is wary of promising to much integration to former Soviet countries. (Photo: Thomas Depenbusch)

EU states and six former Soviet countries are meeting in Riga on Thursday and Friday (21 and 22 May) for the first time since the start of the Ukraine crisis.

Twenty-five EU leaders, the presidents of the EU Council, and the European Commission, and the heads of Armenia, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine will hold talks on political and trade alignment.

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Ireland, Luxembourg, and Spain, as well as Azerbaijan and Belarus are sending foreign ministers.

According to the draft declaration, seen by EUobserver, they will "reconfirm the high importance they attach to the Eastern Partnership [EaP]”, an EU policy on closer ties, and "reaffirm their shared vision of this strategic and ambitious" project.

But the summit will also highlight divergence on where the “partnership” is headed, with some countries, on both sides, happy to take a minimalist approach.

"The key word will be differentiation," an EU official said, referring to the fact that each of the six states is different in terms of democratisation and economic development.

The flexibility is an implicit recognition that despite much progress, the six-year old EaP is still far short of creating good governance and stability in the region.

The talks will be overshadowed by the war in Ukraine and broader tensions with Russia, which sees the EaP as Western encroachment into its sphere of influence.

Participants will recall that the refusal by former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych to sign an EU association agreement at the last EaP summit in Vilnius in 2013, triggered the Euromaidan movement in Kiev and the chain of events leading to Russia’s invasion.

They are drawing different conclusions, however.

Some countries, including Ukraine and Georgia, as well as Poland, Sweden and the Baltic states, think the EU should use the EaP to contain Russia’s influence.

Others, especially Germany, consider that while Russia should implement the Minsk ceasefire agreement in Ukraine, the EU should avoid further confrontation.

"It is important that we avoid creating dividing lines on the continent," a senior EU official said.

"The objective of the Eastern Partnership has always been to create new opportunities for citizens. If others see it differently, it’s not our policy vision."

This debate is reflected in the drafting process of the summit declaration.

The draft, which was agreed on Wednesday, includes a reference to "the European aspirations and the European choice of the partners".

But the reference was added at the last minute after long discussion, even though it was already there in the Vilnius declaration 18 months ago.

On the other hand, in a clear reflection of Russian pressure, the draft "reaffirm[s] 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".

Visas

The summit will see leaders invoke existing and future initiatives to help NGOs and to support small businesses in the EaP countries, and to develop youth exchanges and academic and scientific co-operation.

The event will also be accompanied by a business summit, a civil society conference, and a media conference.

Next to security debates on Ukraine and Georgia, or on the Transnistria or Nagorno-Karabakh frozen conflicts, the big debate will be about visas, trade, and energy.

Ukraine and Georgia want a visa-free regime in 2016, something Moldova already got in April 2014.

But the EU insists the two countries first meet requirements on asylum, drugs, human trafficking, organised crime and corruption before ending the visa regime.

Despite the symbolism attached to the issue by Kiev and Tbilisi, "this not a political question, this is a technical question," the EU official said.

Trade

The EU is much more open on trade issues.

Since Vilnius, Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine signed deep and comprehensive free-trade agreements (DCFTAs) with the EU.

The focus will be to start implementation of the DCFTA with Ukraine on 1 January next year and to fulfill implementation in Moldova and Georgia.

Provisional implementation has already boosted Moldova’s exports to the EU by 20 percent and Georgia’s by 18 percent.

Armenia in 2013 joined the Russian-led Eurasian Union instead of signing an association agreement with the EU.

But on Tuesday (19 May), the commission asked member states for permission to open negotiations on an association and trade pact-lite with Yerevan.

It’s unclear if the summit will officially launch the talks.

Azerbaijan, which is not a member of the World Trade Organization, cares less about EU trade policy, but the two sides have blossoming energy relations.

Energy

The summit will stress the importance of Azerbaijan’s participation in the Southern Gas Corridor, designed to run from the Caspian Sea to Europe through Turkey.

The EU needs the pipeline to counterweigh Russia’s Turkish Stream project and to relieve dependence on Russian gas.

In the “differentiated” EaP, the EU will expect more from Azerbaijan on energy than on democratic reforms.

Meanwhile, the most different member of the EaP is Belarus, whose authoritarian leader, Alekander Lukashenko, is trying to steer a middle way between Russia and the EU ahead of presidential elections.

"There is ground for improvement of relations and Belarus also sees ground for improvement with the EU," the EU official said, pointing to the fact "Belarus has shown a principled attitude" in the Ukraine crisis.

"There is an unanimous view that we need to engage with Belarus," he added.

EU reaches out to former Soviet states

EU countries have acknowledged Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova's EU aspirations but stopped short of giving a clear enlargement perspective.

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