As the heads of state of all 28 EU member states and the six eastern partners convene in Riga for the eastern partnership summit, they will have to figure out how to defend the partners’ free choice, while also finding a way of talking to the “neighbours’ neighbours”.
The eastern partnership was never meant as some sort of attack against the partners’ neighbours, but is how Russia has perceived it. The EU is not trying to extend its sphere of influence to its eastern neighbours – far from it. Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine chose to associate with the EU, but were punished for this choice through trade retaliations and even direct war. Meanwhile, in 2013, Armenia completely diverted from this path – literally overnight – when Moscow threatened to disrupt the country’s gas supply.
A recent study carried out by parliament titled, ‘When Choosing Means Losing’, shows how deep-rooted the eastern partners’ economic ties with Russia are. The free movement of workers contribures substantially to their economies, and exports to Russia cannot be replaced overnight by the EU.
Factoring in trade retaliations by Russia, the costs of deepening ties with the EU is greater than anticipated – at least in the short term.
The commission seems to maintain that nothing prevents the eastern partners from belonging to both free trade areas. However, the political reality and standards paint a different picture.
General trade talks between Moscow and Brussels would be a preferable to Russia constantly demanding a seat at the table in the bilateral EU-Ukraine negotiations on the provisional application of the free agreement. If successful, such talks would benefit all players in the region. This may be the only way of easing the geopolitical crisis caused by the Russian aggression on Kyiv.
The question of visa freedom to Ukraine and Georgia will be a major stumbling block in Riga. The people in the eastern partner countries need to see direct benefits, instead of a bureaucratic exercise of imposing new requirements stemming from hundreds of EU laws.
For a year now, Moldova has enjoyed visa freedom to the EU for a year without any complications. It is perfectly understandable that Georgia and Ukraine would be very disappointed if summit talks failed to come up with an enforcement date for similar visa freedom.
Five of the six partner countries have frozen conflicts, all of which involve Russia. It is time to recognise that official diplomacy has failed.
The Nagorno-Karabah conflict has resulted in more casualties on the frontline in just the first few months of this year than in all of 2014. Much more could be done to encourage confidence-building civil society dialogues. This is something I would like to see the Euronest parliamentary assembly achieve.
Brussels remains divided on whether it should open the path to full EU membership for the eastern partners. Riga will not change this even though parliament has reiterated that the EU treaties grant them this right. I hope that as they head to the summit, the member state representatives will realise that what is most important to the partners is to make concrete progress in term of mobility.
The need for the EU to differentiate its relations with its six eastern partners will dominate the summit agenda. We should not miss an opportunity to build closer ties whenever conditions are met. It remains to be seen what Armenia, Azerbaijan and Belarus finally decide to do.
A new agreement with Armenia is underway. Many wonder about the developments in Belarus. And a worsening crackdown on civil society in Azerbaijan has caused serious concern, and should be an impediment to any deeper engagement on the part of the EU.
The Commission is right to emphasise the need for progress in terms of justice reforms in our eastern partner countries. A lot of technical assistance and monitoring is needed to make sure the reforms go beyond a simple simulation exercise, and work towards an independent judiciary system, weeding out corruption.
In the eyes of the partners, democratic and accountable institutions are the best assurance of sovereignty and independence.
Published in the Parliament Magazine 14 May 2015