19th Feb 2019


Ex-Soviet states need more EU clarity

  • Vimont (c) was the EU foreign service director under Catherine Ashton (Photo: European External Action Service)

The Eastern Partnership (EaP) summit in Riga on 21 and 22 May was a quiet success despite the lack of concrete initiatives or announcements.

It showed how much the relationship between the EU and the six former Soviet countries on its eastern flank is based on a useful, but potentially harmful, ambiguity.

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  • The Riga summit reitarated the 'European aspirations' of Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova (Photo: EU2015.LV)

"It is the maximum we can achieve today," admitted EU Council president Donald Tusk, who chaired the meeting.

Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova did not get the promise of future membership talks with the EU; Ukraine and Georgia were not given visa-free travel from next year; critics of Russia did not obtain a condemnation of Moscow’s involvement in eastern Ukraine; and the EU extracted no commitment on human rights from Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Belarus.

But, at least, EU and EaP leaders did sit in the same room 18 months after a contentious summit in Vilnius followed by Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and rising tension in the region.

"Riga was not the place for thinking [of new steps],” Pierre Vimont, who served as secretary general of the EU’s diplomatic service in 2010-2015, told EUobserver.

"The summit was to take stock of the progress made [since Vilnius], it was not for initiatives or innovation."

In the end, the summit declaration reiterated the "European aspirations" of the three most advanced countries in terms of EU relationa and opened the door to a visa-free travel if requirements are met.

"At least we are not going backward. It is enough to save things and keep the partnership on track," Richard Youngs, from the Carnegie Europe think tank, told this website.

"There is caution with Russia and domestic constraints," he said, explaining why the summit failed to give a clear membership perspective.

Lack of clarity

This situation is also partly due to lack of clarity over the EU’s general direction.

Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova say they fall under article 49 of the EU treaty.

The article says "any European state which respects the values [of the EU] may apply to become a member of the Union".

But the EU never defined what is a European state or said if it considered the six EaP partners as such.

The EaP was launched in 2009 at the initiative of Poland, Sweden, and the Czech republic, which wanted to help former Soviet neighbours to exit Russia’s orbit.

It was endorsed by other EU countries, more reluctant to consider membership perspectives, but interested in stabilising the eastern neighbourhood by fostering closer political and economic relations.

This approach demonstrated both its validity and its limitations in Vilnius in 2013.

At the EaP summit in 2013, Georgia and Moldova announced they would sign association agreement and wide-ranging trade agreements (DCFTAs) with the EU. But Ukraine refused at the last minute, prompting the Maidan movement in Kiev.

The new Ukrainian authorities eventually signed the treaties in 2014.

But Russia exacted a price in its annexation of Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine, while also reacting by a hardening of Russian president Vladimir Putin’s domestic and foreign policy.

The EU had not anticipated that a country would refuse to sign an agreement or that Russia would view the closer ties negatively.

Thinking ahead

"It would be useful that leaders from the most influential countries in the EU start thinking about a strategic vision," for the region, said Vimont, who also works for Carnegie Europe.

Alongside migration and defence co-operation, Russia will be on the agenda of the next European summit in June.

Hawkish countries like Poland and the UK as well as countries more willing to engage with Russia - such as Germany, France, and Italy - should "fix priorities", Vimont said.

The challenge is to "help EaP countries to find a way out of their economic difficulties" while "finding a way to have a dialogue with Russia".

In the short term, as discussed in Riga, the focus will be on implementation of closer political and trade ties as well as the visa regime for the three most pro-EU countries. 

For Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Belarus, the EU is developing the concept of "differentiation" - a de facto two-tier EaP.

This means the bloc is paying less attention to human rights and more to establishing basic economic relations.

While the summit mentioned student exchange or academic and scientific co-operation, the EU should be doing more work with civil society, said Young.

"Civil society is pushing more strongly than governments toward Europe and its standards”, he noted. “What the EU can do is accelerate this evolution".

Vimont added that when the EaP frontrunners - Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova - have raised their democratic and economic standards to fulfill EU demands, the same questions will come up again and the EU should be ready to give clear answers.

"We ask them to implement the community acquis and at the same time we give them no guarantees [on membership]. We will not be able to go on eternally like this," he said.

EU keeps former Soviet countries at arm's length

The EU kept former Soviet states at arm's length in the Riga summit, held in the shadow of Russia's aggression in Ukraine. Greece and the UK referendum gatecrashed the event.

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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