RIGA - Jean Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission, was in jocular form at the Riga Summit on May 21-22, slapping EU leaders on the cheeks and adjusting their ties as they arrived for the photoshoot. “Hello, Dictator!” a Reuters reporter even heard him saying to Hungarian President Victor Orban, apparently in jest.
But even such eccentric showmanship was not enough to inspire any great revival of the Eastern Partnership, an EU policy that has been struggling for its survival in the wake of the Ukraine conflict.
Born in 2009, shortly after Russia’s war in Georgia, the Eastern Partnership was meant to bring peace, stability and closer EU relations to the Eastern Partner countries Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus.
But from the outset, Russia has been the uninvited guest, a spectre at feast of the Eastern Partnership, determined not to be shut out of its influential position in six countries which were once ruled from Moscow as part of the Soviet Union.
The Eastern Partnership has also faced criticism because of the different political cultures of each Eastern Partner, and the even larger political differences between the Eastern Partners and the 28 EU member states.
“They are not ready, we are not ready,” said Juncker in Riga.
In the leadup to the Vilnius Summit on the Eastern Partnership in 2013, then-EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule had been bullish about the Summit, calling it “a historic moment” and “a game changer”. History proved him right but for the wrong reasons: Armenia buckled under Russian pressure and veered away from forming a political and free trade with the EU, joining Russia’s Customs Union instead, while Ukraine, citing similar Russian pressure, also backed away, sparking the Maidan protests in Kiev that soon spiralled out of control, and gave Russia a chance to seize Crimea and destabilise Ukraine’s eastern region of the Donbas in the process.
To avoid any similar flare up to what happened after Vilnius, Latvia was keen to keep this Summit as low key and understated as possible, with Latvian foreign minister Edgars Rinkevics in the run up to the event calling it a “Survival Summit.”
It is an assessment that Commissioner Fule’s successor Commissioner Hahn agreed with. Hahn was at pains to check expectations, telling reporters in Riga that he saw the Summit as more of “a stock-taking exercise.”
No more Eastern Promises
German Chancellor Angela Merkel also tried to play down the significance of the Eastern Partnership, a direct signal to Russia that the Eastern Partnership should not represent a threat to its interests and was distinct from the EU membership process.
“The Eastern Partnership is not aimed against anyone, especially not against Russia,” Merkel told the German parliament before setting off for Riga.
The Eastern Partnership is “not an instrument” of EU enlargement, Merkel stressed. “We must not therefore arouse false expectations which we cannot later fullfil.”
It was echoed by EU Council President Donald Tusk, who pointed out that neither was it “a beauty contest” between the EU and Russia, though he then went on to talk about how if it were, the EU’s natural beauty would win. He also stressed the Summit had taken the Eastern Partnership as far as possible under the circumstances.
“This is the maximum of what we could achieve today,” said Tusk, speaking to reporters at the end of the Summit.
On a slightly tougher note, the summit’s declaration includes a reference to the ‘’illegal annexation of Crimea’’, and confirms support towards ‘’Ukraine’s territorial integrity.’’ However, the Eastern Partners themselves did not echo this call.
Instead they opted to be more circumspect: ‘’The acts against Ukraine and the events in Georgia since 2014 have shown that the fundamental principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity within internationally recognized borders cannot be taken for granted in the 21st century on the European continent,’’ the declaration, agreed by the leaders of the 28 EU members and the six Eastern Partnership countries, reads.
The declaration goes on to say that the EU remains committed in its support to the territorial integrity, independence and sovereignty of all its partners.
‘’Full adherence to all the principles and commitments enshrined in the 1975 Helsinki Final Act and 1990 Charter of Paris by all OSCE Participating States, as well as full respect for the principles and provisions of the UN Charter, is critical to our vision of a free, democratic, peaceful and undivided Europe. The participants of the Summit stress that the Eastern Partnership aims at building a common area of shared democracy, prosperity, stability and increased cooperation and is not directed against anyone. In this context, the Summit participants express their willingness to help rebuild trust and confidence on our continent,’’ the declaration points out.
‘’The Summit participants strongly support all efforts aimed at de-escalation and a political solution based on respect for Ukraine’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity. They call on all parties to swiftly and fully implement the Minsk Agreements of September 2014 and the package of measures for their implementation. They expect all parties to honour their commitments in this framework. They call for the urgent release of all hostages and unlawfully detained persons. They express their full support for the OSCE and its efforts through the Special Monitoring Mission and the Trilateral Contact Group. They will also continue to support all diplomatic efforts within the Normandy format and appreciate the contribution of Belarus in facilitating negotiations,’’ the declaration reads.
Summit participants also called upon all parties to fully cooperate with the international investigations and criminal proceedings to hold to account those who are responsible for the downing of MH17.
‘’The EU reaffirms its positions taken in the Joint Statement made at the EU-Ukraine Summit on April 27, including on the illegal annexation of Crimea and Sevastopol. The Summit participants reaffirm their positions in relation to UN General Assembly Resolution 68/262 on the territorial integrity of Ukraine,’’ the declaration points out.
The declaration also urged the sides involved to continue looking for peaceful solutions to the Nagarno-Karabakh conflict, as well as in the separatist regions of Moldova and Georgia.
‘’The Summit participants emphasize the need for the earliest peaceful settlement of the conflicts in the region on the basis of the principles and norms of international law. The resolution of conflicts, building trust and good neighbourly relations are essential to economic and social development and cooperation,’’ the declaration reads.
The signing of Association Agreements with Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, was also praised, with the Declaration pointing out that ‘’this is an important step in their integration into the EU’’.
In an interview on Latvian Radio on May 22 European Commission Vice President and Commissioner for the Euro and Social Dialogue Valdis Dombrovskis (Unity) said that much progress has been made in the EU’s Eastern Partnership initiative.
As an example, he mentioned the signing of Association Agreement with Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, the launch of free-trade agreements, as well as work on visa liberalization. According to Dombrovskis, the EU is sending many positive signals, so that the Eastern Partnership countries would be interested in continuing cooperation.
The former Latvian prime minister said that during the Eastern Partnership Summit in Riga, a 1.8 billion loan agreement with Ukraine was signed. Dombrovskis did not deny that this country is going through some serious problems at the moment, and added that this loan has its conditions - improving the work of the state administration and fighting corruption.
Asked why Ukraine is being granted a loan, but not to Greece, Dombrovskis said that these are two completely separate matters, as Ukraine is currently in a military conflict, and it is the EU’s responsibility to assist Ukraine.
Speaking about Greece, the politician pointed out that technical talks on granting a loan have been dragging on, and that the country’s financial situation is very bad.
“However, this is the Eastern Partnership Summit, and the Greek matter will not be atop the agenda, even though there will be talks on the sidelines of the summit,” Dombrovskis said.