EU struggles to meet the aspirations of eastern partnersHeat Profit
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The EU’s tug of war with Moscow for influence in six states close to Russia’s borders goes into a new round this week — but the bloc is struggling to give some of them the promises they seek.
Ukraine is angry that Friday’s summit of the so-called Eastern Partnership offers no pledge of EU membership for it and five other ex-Soviet countries. Meanwhile, Brussels’ hopes of enticing Belarus into closer relations have been dealt a symbolic blow after Alexander Lukashenko, its authoritarian president who was under EU sanctions until last year, declined an invitation to attend a partnership summit for the first time.
The partnership was formed to draw Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Belarus and Armenia closer to the EU’s orbit. The first three countries have signed association and trade agreements offered by the partnership initiative that opened access to the EU single Market and led to visa-free travel and other perks.
But the last three countries have declined to sign deals, preferring to stay closer to Russia. The refusal of Viktor Yanukovich, Ukraine’s then president, to sign an EU deal in 2014 under pressure from Moscow, sparked street demonstrations that toppled him — and led unintentionally to a geopolitical stand-off between Russia and the west.
Analysts say the EU should use this week’s meeting to dangle additional prizes to countries that have signed deals with it and build closer relations with those that have not.
“There is a need for the EU to underline its ongoing commitment to the region,” said Amanda Paul, a senior analyst at the European Policy Centre, who said the eight-year-old partnership bolstered the union’s stability and security. “But as the process has gone along, it’s become more difficult to meet the expectations of some of the Eastern Partnership countries.”
The summit also needs to find a balance between EU members pushing for greater ambition in the partnership, including some from the ex-communist east, and older western members who are wary of giving guarantees of future enlargement. Some are wary of further provoking Moscow.
Ukraine wants is a simple message: ‘Once you’re ready — you are in’. This would mean everything to us and cost nothing to the EU
Kiev, whose pro-western government is facing collapsing ratings after three years of hardship following Russia’s 2014 military intervention, has pushed for a statement that it can be accepted as an EU member once it meets the necessary conditions. A draft declaration seen by the FT is more limited, saying only that “summit participants acknowledge the European aspirations and European choice of the partners concerned”.
Kostiantyn Yelisieiev, deputy chief of staff to Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine’s president — and a former Ukrainian ambassador to the EU — signalled in an opinion piece last week that the EU should use the summit to “tell us what we are fighting for”.
“What Ukraine ultimately wants is a simple message: ‘Once you’re ready — you are in’,” Mr Yelisieiev wrote. “This would mean everything to us, and cost nothing to the EU.”
But such a statement is almost impossible for the EU after Dutch voters last year rejected the EU deal that Ukraine’s post-Yanukovich government signed in 2015.
EU leaders had to issue an explanatory statement last December that the partnership agreement did not guarantee future union membership for Ukraine or entail security commitments, to ensure the Netherlands could finally ratify the deal in May.
One EU diplomat sympathetic to the Ukrainian position said the politics made it hard to change the draft declaration. “Going beyond the language that has already been agreed would be difficult — and probably counter-productive,” the diplomat said.
The squabble with Ukraine reflects a wider lack of clarity over whether the EU’s partnership agreements with non-members put countries in a waiting room for membership — or confine them to an annexe from where they will never progress.
The EU’s relations with Azerbaijan, Armenia and Belarus have made scant progress, with the last two opting instead to join the rival Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union.
European officials hope to deepen co-operation with these countries in areas such as trade, common aviation areas and cyber security, as well as energy integration and efficiency — which could make the eastern states less dependent on Russian gas and nuclear technology.
The EU has attempted to get closer to Belarus following signs of an apparent cooling of relations with Moscow, after Mr Lukashenko made unusually strong criticism of Russia for its annexation of Crimea and fomenting of a separatist war in eastern Ukraine in 2014. Belarus has been making its own overtures, with its foreign minister Vladimir Makei calling in an FT interview last month for a new co-operation deal with the EU.
Despite EU officials’ hopes that the Belarus president would accept an invitation to the Brussels summit, Minsk confirmed on Tuesday that Mr Makei, not Mr Lukashenko, would lead its delegation.
Progress towards improving relations with Minsk could help mask the lack of progress elsewhere — or even reversals such as in authoritarian Azerbaijan, where the human rights situation has been deteriorating.
But western analysts warn that Minsk’s latest overtures towards Brussels and coolness towards Moscow could be a continuation of a longstanding strategy of tacking first one way and then the other — playing the two sides off against each other.