The upcoming fourth eastern partnership (EaP) summit, taking place in Latvia’s capital of Riga, is just days away now.
While we have been playing close attention to the challenges continuing to arise from instability along Europe’s southern borders, this summit will also serve as an opportunity to look at the challenges the EU faces along its eastern edge.
The aim is to facilitate a strategic debate between the EU’s 28 member states and its six eastern European partners of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.
The EU has consistently stressed its interest in peace, prosperity and stability along its borders from Morocco to Belarus. Europe’s citizens are well aware of the failed and painful stabilisation process in north Africa, and by now are used to seeing images of migrants from the region attempting to reach European shores.
However, the latest events in eastern Ukraine have proven that peace in our eastern neighbourhood cannot be taken for granted either.
A change in the east
Since the last EaP summit in Vilnius in 2013, Europe’s east has changed. The Russian federation’s illegal annexation of the Crimean peninsula – a sovereign part of Ukraine – has created an unprecedented breach of international security.
Peace in eastern Ukraine remains fragile and volatile. Shootings on the contact line between Armenia and Azerbaijan in Nagorno- Karabakh carry the risk of escalating into a ‘hot conflict’.
Meanwhile, the Russian federation has signed so-called strategic partnership agreements with de facto Abkhaz and South Ossetia authorities, regions the international community recognises as part of the state of Georgia.
The EU has never engaged in a geopolitical battle with any state – including Russia – in this region. However, we must be realistic and recognise that Moscow is looking at these issues from a completely different perspective.
This is unlikely to change after the Riga summit. Brussels is now left wondering how to proceed with its eastern neighbourhood policy and what to expect from the upcoming talks.
A strategic approach
Europe should maintain its strategic approach to the creation of a stable, prosperous and secure neighbourhood as the centrepiece of its policy. The EU’s vision for the eastern partnership is well-founded and its policy on the matter has been supported across the member states.
It is important to always bear in mind that the EU’s policy regarding its eastern partners is integral to its neighbourhood policy, which is inclusive and non-confrontational. The EU is ready to work constructively with all interested partners to avoid dividing lines on the continent.
Russia is and will remain Europe’s neighbour, but it will never have veto rights when it comes to the free and sovereign policy choices of the six eastern European partner countries.
The EU is ready to answer the call from individual eastern partners for a differentiated and tailor-made approach in its relations with these countries. Obviously, each individual partner will have different levels of ambition regarding its relationship with Brussels.
Nevertheless, the eastern partnership should remain a unified and consolidated policy platform for cooperation with all six partner countries. The EU is open to cooperation with any third country partners who share its vision for eastern Europe, and it will need support in stabilising the situation in Ukraine.
With this in mind, we can look forward to the Riga summit yielding a number of concrete and practical results. The meeting must reiterate the EaP’s strategic importance within the EU’s common foreign and security policy, as well as in its neighbourhood policies.
Sending a clear signal
The summit will express support for the six partner countries’ territorial integrity and sovereignty. It will also send a clear signal of support for the implementation of association agreements with Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.
At the same time, the EaP partner states will be encouraged to continue their necessary reforms in order to meet this ambitious target. The summit declaration must reflect forward-looking language on these countries’ further aspirations in terms of their relationship with the EU.
The talks will also serve as an impetus for developing ties with Armenia, Azerbaijan and Belarus based on their wishes and expectations. Brussels is keen to develop a new bilateral legal framework with Armenia, and is looking forward to suggestions from Azerbaijan on a political document to be developed.
The EU also welcomes Belarus’ efforts and willingness to find its rightful place within EaP policy. The summit will take note of the significant progress that has been made in the field of mobility in Georgia and Ukraine, and indicate that visa-free travel within the Schengen area for these countries’ citizens is possible within the foreseeable future.
It will also stress the long-term importance of strengthening multilateral and sectorial cooperation, which is an interest for the EU and all six partner countries. Three ministerial meetings on justice and home affairs, trade and digital economy will take place during Latvia’s EU council presidency, underlining the potential of relations in these areas.
In addition, the Riga summit will provide an impetus for cementing ties between Brussels and the partners in state-building, energy efficiency and networks and interconnectivity.
Alongside the summit, the Latvian EU council presidency will organise several important additional events, including the eastern partnership civil society conference, the business forum and a media conference, in order to highlight the growing role of civil society, business, media and other interested stakeholders.
The first EaP summit was held six years ago in Prague. Since then, we have come a long way and much has been achieved, but the vision of stability, prosperity and peace along Europe’s eastern borders remains as relevant as ever.
The Riga summit will be an important milestone in building our vision. The EU does not need to reinvent the wheel – it must simply stay committed to what its partners have been promised, and what serves our interests.