The Riga Summit: Enter, pursued by a bear

18 May 2015

The Eastern Partnership summit in Riga on May 21st-22nd will be a gloomy affair. Russia’s aggressive behaviour has put EU member-states on the defensive. Enthusiasm for further integration between the EU and its Eastern neighbours is on the wane. But Europe should be bolder: a grey zone to its east is not in the EU's interests.

The Latvian Foreign Minister, Edgars Rinkēvičs, said in February that the EU’s meeting with its eastern partners would be a “survival summit”. The run-up to the meeting suggests that the Eastern Partnership will still be in a critical condition after Riga. The six partners (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine) are a disparate group, and EU member-states are divided in their views of the partnership’s future. Here are five steps to save the Eastern Partnership.

First, decide what the goal of the partnership is. The EU has never seemed sure. Within the EU, some countries, primarily in Central Europe, have wanted to give the Eastern partners a perspective of eventual EU membership; others have not. Partners are equally divided: Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine have been more or less enthusiastically pro-EU; Ukrainian presidents (even Viktor Yanukovych) have been talking publicly about Ukraine’s long-term intention to join the EU since at least 1996.

President Aleksandr Lukashenko of Belarus, on the other hand, has been under some form of EU sanctions since 1997. Azerbaijan, with its large hydrocarbon reserves, has little interest in the trade privileges offered by the Eastern Partnership and still less in good governance, human rights and democracy. Armenia is balanced uncomfortably: too dependent on Russia for defence against Azerbaijan to sign an association agreement against Moscow’s will, but keen to benefit from any EU assistance available.

There has been protracted wrangling ahead of Riga over how to refer (or to avoid referring) to the possibility of enlargement. At the last summit, in Vilnius in 2013, the EU and its partners acknowledged “the European choice of some partners” and said that the partnership had a particular role in supporting “those who seek an ever closer relationship with the EU”. At the time of writing, even this vague wording seems to be in question.

The Treaty on European Union says clearly that any European state which respects EU values “and is committed to promoting them may apply to become a member of the Union”. By refusing to refer to this language, even indirectly, the EU reinforces two Russian arguments: that the EU does not want the Eastern Europeans as members under any circumstances; and that Eastern Europe is a region of “privileged interests” for Russia, in the phrase used by then-President Dmitri Medvedev in 2008. The EU should come off the fence, and say that it will keep the door to membership open, however long it takes partners to get through it; and that Russia has no right to close it.

Second, differentiate clearly between the partners. The pre-summit press release talks confusingly of the EU’s “determination to pursue closer, differentiated relations”. But there is no point in wasting limited EU resources on countries which are not committed to the partnership’s principles of democracy, the rule of law and good governance. Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine are at least making efforts to improve. Georgia and Ukraine will be disappointed that one of the most attractive elements of the partnership, visa-free access to the Schengen area, is still out of reach, for technical reasons. The principle of ‘more for more’ should be more than a slogan: EU programmes and funding should flow to the countries that have made the most progress.

There are good reasons for the EU to want a strong relationship with a major energy producer like Azerbaijan, but the Union should not behave as though Azerbaijan is gradually converging with European norms and values. The 2014-2015 progress report on Azerbaijan presented by the European Commission and the European External Action Service is stark. It talks of deteriorating conditions for civil society, the detention of human rights defenders and restrictions on freedom of expression and association. Notwithstanding the EU sanctions against it, Belarus is in fact a better performer on human rights than Azerbaijan, and should get a little more love from Brussels.

Where a government is a difficult or uncooperative interlocutor, the EU should focus more attention on civil society organisations – including through increasing the resources available to the European Endowment for Democracy. Support for civil society does not have to mean support for the political opposition or confrontation with the existing regime: it can cover help and advice for environmental groups or groups working to protect the rights of vulnerable minorities; all help to increase the resilience of society, and to prepare for the possibility of political evolution.

Third, communicate better. The then-foreign minister of Sweden Carl Bildt said in Vilnius in 2013 “Putin makes you an offer you can’t refuse; the EU makes you an offer you can’t understand”. The EU’s public diplomacy effort in Eastern Partnership countries needs to be turbo-charged. The Union has to do a much better job of countering ignorance, misunderstanding and misinformation and telling the positive story of the benefits co-operation with the EU will bring. Eighteen months after the first Maidan demonstrations, the EU delegation in Kyiv still has a website with information in English and Ukrainian only. It was left to the British Embassy in Kyiv to produce a Russian-language pamphlet setting out the advantages to Ukraine of its association agreement with the EU. The Ukrainian President’s website is in Ukrainian and Russian; if Petro Poroshenko thinks it is politically acceptable to speak to Russian-speaking Ukrainians in their native language, why does the EU not do the same?

Russian anti-EU propaganda has had the field almost to itself throughout the Eastern Partnership region, and it shows in the opinion polls. In Moldova, a poll in April showed 58 per cent in favour of joining the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (with 26 per cent against) and only 40 per cent in favour of joining the EU, with 42 per cent against. That is a remarkable statistic, considering that Russia has blocked Moldovan agricultural exports since July 2014, while the EU has increased Moldova’s access to European markets and given Moldovans visa-free access to the Schengen area.

Fourth, stop thinking that the Eastern Partnership is a purely technical exercise. For the countries that have signed association agreements, the process of harmonising local laws and regulations with European law is indeed a complex, tedious, legalistic marathon; and only a handful of people will ever read the whole text of the agreements, or need to. But Putin is right to think that if the EU’s partners implement the new laws and regulations and live up to their commitments under the agreements something dramatic will change in Europe.

The Eastern Partnership was never intended as a geopolitical project, but if it results in some of its members adopting the vast majority of the EU acquis communautaire, it will produce a decisive break between them and their Soviet past. The EU needs to understand that Putin sees the adoption by Russia’s neighbours of EU standards, open markets and above all the rule of law as inherently threatening to his interests.

Fifth, ensure that Ukraine succeeds. Ukraine's population is around 50 per cent greater than the other five partners combined; its GDP is almost equal to that of the other five. While it would certainly not be good if reforms stalled in Georgia or Moldova, failure in Ukraine would be fatal to the Eastern Partnership and deeply damaging to the EU itself.

The EU's interests lie in having neighbours that share its values and its ways of doing business. It needs to be ready to react to Russian moves to destabilise the countries of the region with much more speed and determination than it showed in Ukraine in 2014.Then, its sanctions were initially too weak to make Russia rethink its aggression, and its support for Ukraine too modest to match the scale of the economic, political and military challenges Kyiv faced.

Though in 2004 Putin said that Russia would welcome Ukrainian membership of the EU, since 2013 he has exerted enormous, destabilising efforts to ensure that Ukraine cannot benefit from its association agreement with the Union, let alone make progress towards membership.

German chancellor Angela Merkel and French president François Hollande made a serious error in Minsk: they supported the idea of talks between the EU, Russia and Ukraine “to find practical solutions to the concerns raised by Russia about the implementation” of the EU-Ukraine Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA). The DCFTA will force Ukraine to make painful reforms; but it also offers a long-term route to a better-managed, open and ultimately more successful economy.

Russian intentions towards the DCFTA are neither reasonable nor honourable. If Russia wants to ensure that its goods remain competitive on the Ukrainian market, it should negotiate its own free trade agreement with Kyiv; it has no more right to seek amendments to the DCFTA than the EU has to demand changes to the arrangements for the Eurasian Economic Union. But the proposed amendments put forward by Russia go further. They are clearly intended to wreck the DCFTA and to ensure that Ukraine cannot profit from it; they would damage both EU exporters and Ukrainian consumers. The EU should make clear that it will not postpone the implementation of the DCFTA any further: it will start on December 31st 2015. And the EU and its partners should be prepared to stand up to any Russian retaliation. As wildlife experts advise, “if a bear approaches or charges you, do not run”.

Ian Bond is director of foreign policy at the Centre for European Reform.