After the last Eastern Partnership (EaP) summit, in Vilnius in 2013, became a disaster for Ukraine, there are fewer chances that the EU will unveil much at the event in Riga. But, during the two days of the Riga summit, European leaders must evaluate their readiness to reinforce political deterrence in the region. To build internal resilience in the EaP countries to unfolding crises, EU leaders should bring a unilateral response mechanism from reactive to proactive diplomacy with one clear goal – to build a secure space for successful implementation of reforms.
Recognizing the limitations
In reality, there is no need to redefine the Eastern Partnership; there is, rather, a need to accept its limitations and work on the lessons learnt. Russia’s aggression in Ukraine has dominated the diplomatic agenda and questioned the EaP’s ability to function without a clear understanding of the challenging strategic environment in the region. The fact that five out of six EaP states are already involved in territorial disputes with Russia suggests that the latter has failed to be a regional partner. The Kremlin broke the maxim si vis pacem, para pactum (“if you want peace, agree to keep the peace”) by military and non-linear means, and deliberately violated the territorial integrity of a sovereign state. EU leaders and the EaP partners should reverse their thinking towards developing deterrence and common security, thereby accepting the reality of the Latin adage si vis pacem, para bellum (“if you want peace, prepare for war”).
Up to now, the EU has taken an anticipatory and reactive role due to its being tied to the bureaucratic processes of the EaP. Given that, since Vilnius, it has become quite apparent that Russia and the EU have completely different views about the future of their neighbours, the EU has to face reality – it is already in the game of geopolitical rivalry. Yet the set of tools used in Brussels’ response has to be different; it should move from reactive to proactive diplomacy.
The fragility of the Minsk agreement – which scarcely attempts to maintain a ceasefire between Russia-backed separatist groups and Ukrainian forces in eastern Ukraine – made EU leaders geopolitically cautious in respect of any ambitious messages towards the EaP. Even if the EaP is a bilateral format of cooperation between the EU and six partners, Russia-backed separatists and Russia’s military equipment on the territory of one of the EaP countries serve as a reminder that the Kremlin is already de facto involved in the process of EaP planning. As part of the Minsk package, Russia was included in trilateral talks on the EU–Ukraine Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA). In practice, the trilateral ministerial meeting focused mainly on one task – “to achieve practical solutions to the concerns raised by Russia” – and, as a result, the agreement was postponed until January 2016.
Such a paradox should not become common practice. Without doubt, the EU leadership should be prepared to deter Russia’s continuous efforts to destabilise the region while maintaining an open dialogue with Moscow. Yet it should not allow the latter to dictate the agenda. If Russia wants to secure the competitiveness of its goods in the Ukrainian market, it has to negotiate with Kyiv on a bilateral basis and not require amendments to the EU–Ukraine free trade agreement. The EU should make clear that it will not postpone the implementation of the bilateral agreement with Ukraine any further.
A stronger push for reforms
Even if the Kremlin thinks otherwise, the EaP programme is not a geopolitically charged initiative. Similarly, support and guidance for the reform process in the EaP region is not an anti-Russia policy. The EaP programme is a way to deliver a package of reforms to enforce state building, rule of law and develop market opportunities in partner countries. Unfortunately, the internal institutional weakness of all six EaP countries still undermines reforms, and sustains doubts over any further U-turns in the region; but it cannot stop the irreversible generational change and democratic vision in Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine and the pro-European movements in the more isolated environment of civil society in Azerbaijan, Armenia and Belarus.
The EU’s soft power does in fact work. The EaP initiative has provided the concrete framework for the realisation of this vision, not least through the association agreements/DCFTAs signed with three countries in 2014. To support these trends, Brussels should turn to its main outreach tool – visa liberalisation. In April 2014, visa-free travel was granted to Moldova. Georgia and Ukraine are working to implement their Visa Liberalisation Action Plans with great persistence and political determination. The process is pretty much in place, but should be accelerated, backed up with greater technical and financial support as one of the tools for creating a “bridge” between representatives of civil society and the business sectors in the EU and EaP region.
EU funding should flow immediately to the countries that demonstrate actual progress and show a strong commitment to the EU’s democratic values. Reforms are effective measures to build resilience against uncertainty and instability as a long-term strategy, but won’t be sufficient to respond to unfolding crises within a reasonable timeframe. The EU must review its comprehensive approach to conflict management. More than before, security and defence matter.
Closer cooperation on security and defence
Russia’s aggression in Ukraine raised the question of how the EU can and should react to the crisis in its neighbourhood. The new reality in the EU’s vicinity demonstrates the need to include a security dimension in the EaP framework. Bilateral association agreements between the EU and three EaP countries (Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine) emphasise the need to enhance security cooperation, conduct dialogue on security and defence and, moreover, promote the principles of independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity. Yet the security component is unjustifiably weak in the multilateral dimension of the EaP. It seems that EU member states are aware of the importance of guaranteeing sovereignty, but hold back from approaching it on a broader – geopolitical – level. It is time to recognise that current developments in Ukraine have brought the security dimension front and centre.
As a practical recommendation, the EU should ensure that the reviewed and updated EaP policy places even greater emphasis on bilateral cooperation in the framework of Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP). The EaP countries have already showed a renewed interest and willingness to join CSDP missions: Ukraine contributed frigate to EUNAVFOR Atalanta in 2014, Moldova took part in the EU military training mission in Mali, and Georgia contributed one infantry company (156 troops) to the EU’s peacekeeping force in the Central African Republic, making it the second-largest contributor to this operation. Both strong commitment of the EaP countries for security and defence cooperation and increasing instability in the region send a strong message for the EU to reinforce its role of a “security provider” in its vicinity to reassure and strengthen the partnership in return.
Security vs. reform or reform vs. security
We have to admit the shortfalls of the EaP process in Ukraine, due to the EU’s inability to deliver a strong political response to Russia’s violation of the sovereignty of states in the EaP region. Even with all that has gone on, sanctions were not fully implemented, and the AA/DCFTA with Ukraine was delayed until 2016. Ukraine must implement a number of reforms, but the EU needs to secure the space for Ukraine to do so. Financial assistance to all EaP countries is important, as well as strict and increasing conditionality. But the security and defence sectors should not be neglected. No political leadership will be able to implement tough reforms while its neighbour cultivates internal conflicts using the whole range of military and diplomatic tools. Moldova and Georgia have achieved solid results in the EaP implementation process and it would be a geopolitical failure to allow other regional conflicts to erupt. The political leadership in the EaP region should be encouraged to take risks to stamp out corrosive corruption and economic inefficiency if a secure and stable environment is provided.
The Riga summit will not become a stage for ambitious statements, but it is an important event which will serve as a reminder that the EaP countries, together with the EU leaders, are on track and cooperating closely to push for more reforms as the ultimate way to build resilience in the face of uncertainty and instability in the region.