EU dampens Eastern partners‘ expectations
The Fourth Eastern Partnership Summit in Riga was not about making ambitious announcements. It was rather about finding a compromise in a very diverse environment.
On 20-21 May, Latvia‘s capital Riga hosted the Eastern Partnership Summit bringing together the Heads of State or Government from the 28 EU Member States with those of the six partner countries – Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. Still vivid were the memories of the last Summit in Vilnius in November 2013 when Ukraine‘s then President Viktor Yanukovich had refused to sign the Association Agreement with the EU thus triggering massive Maidan protests and paving the way for the current crisis in Eastern Ukraine.
Striving for unity in a very complex neighbourhood
The Eastern Partnership initiative came into being in 2009 as a regional framework representing the Eastern dimension of the European Neighbourhood Policy. It aims at increasing the cooperation between the EU and the six ex-Soviet countries by offering them mechanisms for deepening their political association and gradual economic alignment with the EU. The stated overall goal is to create an area of shared security, stability and prosperity, which, however, seems to be quite a challenge in the current context.
Despite sharing a common past, the future aspirations of the six countries go in different directions. Whereas three countries – Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia – signed Association Agreements with the EU last year and are seeking a closer European integration, Azerbaijan, Belarus and Armenia are rather interested in a loose relationship with the Union, while strengthening their ties with the Russian Federation. Two of these “pro-Russian“ Eastern countries are after all members of the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union.
In the period since the Vilnius Summit it has become obvious that the Eastern Partnership is not only about the relationship of the EU with its six neighbours but it has gained a wider geopolitical contour affecting also the relationship with the neighbours‘ neighbours. Moves in pursuit of strategic interests and threatening the territorial integrity of sovereign states currently witnessed in the post-Soviet area make it a very delicate ground for geopolitical competition.
Policy of “strategic patience“ prevails over ambitious expectations
Representatives of Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia had hoped that the European leaders would finally define a clear future EU membership perspective for their countries at the Riga Summit. Another major expectation expressed by Ukraine and Georgia was the wish to be allowed visa-free travel to the Schengen zone just as it was granted to Moldova in 2014.
Although reports prior to the Summit had predicted, on the basis of the leaked draft texts, a big disappointment for the three “pro-European“ countries, the Joint Declaration adopted at the Summit offers them a European perspective, even if a limited one, by “acknowledging the European aspirations and the European choice of the partners concerned“. While stressing that Eastern Partnership is “not directed against anyone“ and its objective is to develop “differentiated relations“ with “sovereign, independent partners“, the Declaration also envisages future ways of cooperation with the three countries without an Association Agreement.
Concerning the visa-free travel for Ukrainian and Georgian citizens, the Declaration refers to the progress report of the European Commission to be published at the end of 2015. Fulfillment of the necessary benchmarks by both countries will allow the Visa Liberalisation Process to be concluded.
The compromise character of the Joint Summit Declaration is most obvious with regard to the conflict in Ukraine. The text reaffirms the position of the EU against the “illegal annexation of Crimea“ while making clear that not all of the Summit participants, notably Armenia and Belarus, share the same view.
The way ahead
Those who expected a strong statement announcing radical changes at the Riga Summit may have been disappointed. Strategic considerations resulting from the current geopolitical environment as well as internal disunity among the EU Member States on key questions and diversity of aspirations and interests among the Eastern partners made it necessary to limit the Declaration to the lowest common denominator.
Even if the final statement and the terms in which it was couched may run the risk discouraging the partner countries from pursuing further reforms and undermining the credibility of the Union´s policy, the EU decided not to follow a “now-or-never“ approach but instead to “go forward step-by-step“ as the President of the European Council Donald Tusk stated after the Summit.
The next step, it is to be hoped a more courageous one, should be taken after the conclusion of the current review of the European Neighourhood Policy in autumn. It should better reflect the diversity in EU‘s neighbourhood and define a clear vision of the long-term purpose of its partnership policy.
COMECE/Justice and Peace Europe