The outcomes of the Eastern Partnership Summit in Riga, Latvia, were even more predictable and less intriguing than the results of the Vilnius Summit back in 2013. The progress done by Georgia and Ukraine was, as expected, applauded and more tangible promises announced regarding visa-free regime negotiations. However, the Summit clearly demonstrated a drastically growing gap among some Eastern partners and their foreign policies. Considering these developments, Brussels tried to apply a differentiated approach to its partners instead of separating them into two clubs.
From Vilnius to Riga
Since the Vilnius Summit in 2013, Eastern Partnership countries have undergone turmoil and changes during their cooperation with the European Union. In this short period we observed a harsh ongoing crisis in Ukraine, which affected economic and political situation in whole region. Later the EU signed and started implementing DCFTAs and Association Agreements with Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. The visa-regime has been liberated with Moldova and significant success achieved in VLAP talks with Georgia and Ukraine. On the other hand, Moscow signed so called “deeper integration treaties” with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, while Armenia eventually joined the Russian-led Eurasian Union and became the second EaP country (together with Belarus) to seemingly drop the European aspirations.
Mentioned, strengthened, omitted?
From the EU-EaP’s joint declaration: every partner has its “sovereign right to choose the level of ambition and goals to which it aspires in its relations with the European Union”.
— Latvian Presidency (@eu2015lv) May 22, 2015
Most likely, from now on this record will become a central argument justifying the maintenance of the format of Eastern Partnership as it is today. However, can it affect the European aspirations of Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine in future?
Let’s take a look at some important aspects of the final declaration of Riga Summit:
- In the third paragraph, the EU showed clear support for the territorial integrity, independence and sovereignty of its partners, and particularly pointed out that the acts of aggression against Georgia and Ukraine in 2014 proved the violation of internationally recognized borders on the European continent.
- In the next paragraph, all Summit participants agreed to support de-escalation of the conflict in Ukraine through implementation of Minsk Agreement. However, only the EU reaffirmed its criticism against “illegal annexation of Crimea and Sevastopol”. This statement was signed by neither Armenia and Belarus (who officially opposed this wording) nor other partner states. Apparently the EU tried to avoid drastic separation of positions between the participants and took the whole responsibility.
- No dramatic changes were applied to the fifth paragraph regarding the frozen conflicts in three sub-regions, which can be considered as a failure of each state. The conflict in Transnistria and Nagorno-Karabakh, as well as implementation of August 2008 ceasefire agreement, had been joined in one single paragraph, unlike the Ukrainian crisis that occupies whole separate sections.
- The seventh, ninth, tenth and eleventh paragraphs praised the progress of signing and implementing DCFTAs and Association Agreements with Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, hoping that all Member States of the EU would ratify these documents soon. The concept of “more-for-more” also found its place in the document, similarly to the declaration from Vilnius Summit.
- Surprisingly, right after that one single paragraph unified bilateral relationships of the EU with Armenia, Azerbaijan and Belarus. The distinction of two different clubs has become more visible here.
- The EU also praised the implementation of VLAP (Visa Liberalisation Action Plans)with Georgia and Ukraine and supported these countries on their way to the successful accomplishment of all benchmarks by the end of December 2015.
Three important facilitating benefits that the visa-free regime can bring to all sides are: travel, business and people to people contacts.
- As President of the European Council Donald Tusk mentioned at the final common press-conference, energy and transportation issues would become priorities within the Eastern Partnership cooperation.
Indeed, two entire paragraphs in the declaration were dedicated to these topics, where particular role of Azerbaijan was pointed out distinctively.
The process of compromising on a common declaration made European leaders sweat and worry. President of the European Council Donald Tusk even had to ring President Aliyev in Baku to get his approval on the wording about Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The associated states did not manage to include the EU membership perspective in the declaration. Instead, President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker, President Tusk and Chancellor Angela Merkel mentioned several times that the EaP was not about the EU membership.
Visegrad Insight: EaP participants need a promise of more short-term benefits
View to the future
Despite all this, Georgian and Ukrainian delegates seemed to be satisfied by the outcomes. President Petro Poroshenko noted that the EU had demonstrated its unity and consolidation towards its partners. Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili pointed out that Georgia obtained the maximum from the Riga Summit. Indeed, the EU gave signals that the political decision regarding visa-free regime with Georgia and Ukraine had already been made.
— Alexander Chanadiri (@a_chanadiri) May 22, 2015
The delegations left Riga with the hope that the VLAP benchmarks regarding migration management, asylum, public order and security, external relations and fundamental rights will be accomplished by the end of the year.
— Alexander Chanadiri (@a_chanadiri) May 22, 2015
Now it is up to these countries to achieve more in order to receive even more incentives from the process of European integration. However, will the EaP need to undergo structural changes? The answer will be found at the next EaP summit in 2017.