European Union Summit in Riga
EU Pulls Away from Ukraine and
Its Eastern Partnership
That the European Union is quietly disengaging from its Ukrainian adventure gains further confirmation from the results of the latest Eastern Partnership summit in Riga.
EU Expansion in Eastern Europe in Doubt
Though Western governments deny it, the Eastern Partnership was set up to stop Eurasian integration by drawing away from Russia former Soviet republics that might otherwise have gravitated back towards Russia. The Association Agreements the EU has signed with Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova are products of the Eastern Partnership. To say that the Eastern Partnership has had mixed results would be to rate it too highly and would be far too generous.
Map of EU countries (dark blue) and Eastern Partnership (light blue).
Two former Soviet republics, Belarus and Armenia, while continuing politely to participate, have refused to be drawn away from their historic alignment with Russia. Belarus is a founding member of the Eurasian Union, which Armenia is now also joining. Membership in the Eastern Partnership by these two countries is no more than a formality.
Azerbaijan has long pursued its own independent course, maintaining good relations with both Russia and the West. Perennial Western hopes that Azerbaijan will replace Russia as the main supplier of oil and gas to Europe have always been disappointed.
These three countries which while participating in the Eastern Partnership have maintained their distance from the EU and their links to Russia, are today the most prosperous and politically stable of those involved in the project.
The three countries that have embraced the Eastern Partnership most enthusiastically — Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine — have in contrast all run into serious difficulties.
In 2008 Georgia lost Abkhazia and South Ossetia, even if it remains unable to accept the fact. It continues to depend heavily on Russia, which not only remains the major market for its goods, but which continues to be the major source of the remittances that keep its economy afloat. Though the Georgian political class remains united in seeking EU integration, the politician most identified with the policy, former President Saakashvili, is discredited and an exile, wanted in Georgia on criminal charges.
Moldova — rather like Ukraine before 2013 — is evenly divided between mutually hostile pro-EU and pro-Russia factions. It also has to contend with a pro-Russian de facto independent state inside its borders in the form of the republic of Transnistria, an area that before the 1917 Revolution belonged to the historically Russian territory of Novorossia.
Though the pro-EU faction is in control of Moldova, as in Ukraine it is deeply factionalised. In the meantime, cut off from its traditional Russian markets by the pro-EU course of its government, Moldova remains one of the poorest countries in Europe.
For Ukraine, the Eastern Partnership has been a total disaster, triggering a descent into civil war and economic collapse.
The latest summit in Riga shows the degree to which following the Ukrainian debacle the whole project is now running out of steam. There is no doubt that when Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine joined the Eastern Partnership they did so in the expectation that they would one day join the EU. Moreover, there is little doubt the European authors of the Eastern Partnership thought the same thing.
In all three of these countries loyalty to “Europe” — formed in the expectation of eventual EU membership — has acquired the fanatical quality one normally associates with membership in a religious cult.
During the 2008 war, many noticed from television pictures that Georgia’s then President Saakashvili had an EU flag on his desk alongside Georgia’s flag — as if Georgia was already a member of the EU.
In Moldova there has been talk of criminalising any questioning of Moldova’s “Euro-Atlantic course”.
The protests that led in February 2014 to the toppling of Ukrainian President Yanukovych (triggered by his decision to postpone signing the Association Agreement with the EU) called themselves “EuroMaidan”. A news agency set up by the protesters during the protests still calls itself by that name.
The summit in Riga has put a massive dampener on all this.
Prior to the summit, German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned former Soviet states that no concrete promises of future EU membership were being made to them. The Eastern Partnership is not an “instrument of enlargement politics for the European Union and we must not make promises that we can’t fulfill,” Merkel said. Similar warnings were made by other European officials.
On the topic of future membership, EU Commission President Juncker said “they are not ready, we are not ready”.
Even as determined an opponent of Russia and supporter of eventual EU membership for the former Soviet states as European Council President Donald Tusk said — in words some might find cynical — “They have their right to have a dream, but maybe not membership in the predictable future.”
The result, as I predicted in an interview I did for Radio Sputnik on the eve of the summit, is that the summit has produced a long-winded and pompously worded Declaration (link below) that on careful reading commits the EU to absolutely nothing. The nearest it comes to mentioning eventual EU membership is in paragraph 2, where it says:
“In the framework of the European Neighbourhood Policy and the Eastern Partnership, the Summit participants reaffirm the sovereign right of each partner freely to choose the level of ambition and the goals to which it aspires in its relations with the European Union. It is for the EU and its sovereign partners to decide on how they want to proceed in their relations.” (Italics added)
In other words, putting it rather less brutally than Tusk, the former Soviet states have a right to apply for EU membership (something no one has ever disputed), but no right to membership, and there is no obligation on the EU to grant it.
Most disappointing of all, to the Ukrainians especially, is the EU’s failure to offer visa free access or any real prospect of it. This was achieved by Moldova in April 2014, at a time when shortly after the Maidan coup hopes for the success of the Eastern Partnership project were riding high. Now that those hopes have been dashed by the Ukrainian disaster, European willingness to grant even this has cooled.
This will be a particularly bitter blow to Ukraine where hopes of gaining visa free access to the EU was critically important in mobilising support for the Maidan movement, especially among young people. The importance of this issue for Ukraine is shown by the fact that Ukrainian President Poroshenko was still saying right up to the eve of the summit that a “political decision” to give Ukraine visa free access would be made at the summit.
That did not happen, and demands by Ukrainian foreign minister Klimkin for Ukraine to be given “concrete assurances” and a roadmap for EU membership went unheeded.
To sweeten the pill, Ukraine has been promised $2 billion in EU aid — a totally inadequate sum given Ukraine’s needs.
Even this promise might turn out to be less than it seems. The wording of paragraph 21 suggests this might simply be money that was promised to Ukraine before.
The EU and the IMF have repeatedly re-announced the same aid packages for Ukraine they announced previously, dressing them up as new ones. The vague wording of paragraph 21 suggests that this might again be the case with this latest announcement.
This aid is, anyway, in the form of a loan, which means it could be withdrawn or cancelled if Ukraine defaults on its debts, which it is likely to do. It also appears to be linked to Ukraine carrying out reforms, which Ukraine has never been able to do, and which in itself calls into question the prospect of this loan money ever being disbursed.
Like everything else that came out of the Riga summit this promise — like promises of aid made to Ukraine before — looks symbolic or declaratory rather than real.
This deeply disappointing outcome for Ukraine has elicited a bitter comment from Ukraine’s former President Yushchenko, who said: “The world is getting tired of the Ukrainian issue … they’ve started swatting Ukraine away like a pesky fly.”
As we have previously discussed (see “EU Prepares to Abandon Ukraine,” Russia Insider, 22nd May 2015) the terms of the February Minsk Memorandum, the autonomy proposals made with Russia’s backing by the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics, and reports about the comprehensive re negotiation of Ukraine’s Association Agreement with the EU, taken together, all point to the EU looking for ways to extricate itself from the disaster its policies have created in Ukraine.
The results of the Riga summit seem to confirm that, and suggest that the drive to expand the EU into the territory of the former USSR is all but over. However that is dressed up, it inevitably means abandoning Ukraine to its fate. Yushchenko’s comment suggests that some Ukrainians are starting to wake up to the fact.
For full text of the Joint Declaration of the Eastern Partnership Summit click here.
(Russia Insider, May 25, 2015.)