How to solve EU’s irrelevance in its own neighbourhood
A litany of blunders has exposed the EU’s irrelevance in its own neighbourhood and the inadequacy of its partnership with Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. Currently, these partnerships focus on the political and the economic. However, if Europe seeks a resilient and flourishing eastern neighbourhood, it must add a security dimension to its Eastern Partnership framework, as Taras Kuzio points out.
It is a year since a Russian brokered ceasefire ended hostilities between Azerbaijan and Armenia. That agreement strengthened Moscow’s influence in the South Caucasus and delivered its military boots in Azerbaijan under the pretext of peacekeeping.
At the same time, the agreement exposed the irrelevance of the European Union in its own neighbourhood and the inadequacy of its Eastern Partnership (EaP), which is the EU’s instrument for governing its relationship with the half dozen post-Soviet countries around the Black Sea – Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.
Since then, a litany of blunders in the region has compounded the EU’s insignificance in the region. These missteps point to long known problems of a muddling EU foreign policy that – in the current geopolitical climate – has become unsustainable.
The EU will not be able to create a stable neighbourhood without approaching the region’s core issue of territorial disputes
President Joe Biden’s calamitous withdrawal from Afghanistan has revealed Washington as an unreliable ally to the European Union. Acting unilaterally, the United States has thrown Europe into its largest foreign policy challenge since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The EU will face renewed refugee influxes, narcotics trafficking and a reenergised terrorist movement surrounding its continent from Afghanistan to the Western Sahel.
A stable neighbourhood: adding a security dimension
The EU cannot begin to address these issues without strong cooperation with those in its neighbourhood and the Eastern Partnership – not least because of the region’s strategic importance. The neighbouring countries can deliver a diversified supply away from Russian energy, and serve as a logistical freight potential to Eastern Asia, the future economic engine of the world shift.
However, the EU will not be able to create a stable neighbourhood without approaching the region’s core issue of territorial disputes. Frozen conflicts plague the Black Sea coast, from Transnistria in Moldova and the Donbas in Ukraine to Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia. Russia’s hand is present in all.
The conflict in Karabakh in Azerbaijan was frozen for many years as well. Since the 1994 ceasefire, the internationally recognised Azerbaijani land had been under the control of ethnic Armenians. Last year’s 44-day conflict in this region changed the status quo. Yet, a comprehensive peace treaty has remained unattainable.
Irresolution in all these conflicts suits Russia. It gives the Russians the prime seat at the table, and a thick heft of leverage over the countries. However, for EaP countries, conflicts have blocked borders, led to the proliferation of criminal trafficking and soft security threats, reduced trade and economic growth, and compromised the respective nations’ sovereignty.
When European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen came to power, she vowed to position the European bloc as a geopolitical power in the world
If Europe seeks a resilient and flourishing eastern neighbourhood, it must add a security dimension to its Eastern Partnership framework. This was already recommended by Romania’s foreign minister in August this year1 , as well as in a paper of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) last year.2
Currently, the partnerships with the Eastern European countries focus on political reforms and economic collaboration. This casts the EU as irrelevant when the most important issue facing nations are conflicts. Defence capacity building and training, intelligence cooperation and cybersecurity have been left over to either individual members or Washington.
Words but no deeds
The EU has recognised the defect. When European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen came to power, she vowed to position the European bloc as a geopolitical power in the world.
Still, words have not been translated into policy, as Charles Michel’s summer visit to the South Caucasus showed. Michel went to Georgia to consolidate the so-called ‘Charles Michel agreement’. Negotiated in April, this agreement paved the way for formal cooperation between the Georgia’s ruling party and several opposition groups, who were boycotting parliament after a dispute over the recent election. A few days after Michel’s visit, the ruling party pulled out of the agreement.
In Azerbaijan and Armenia, Michel was present to mediate a peace treaty following last year’s Second Karabakh War. He stated the EU “is ready to play a constructive role as an honest broker with Azerbaijan and Armenia”.3 But his actions belied his words.
Whereas Michel confined himself to platitudinous comments in Baku (Azerbaijan’s capital city), he pulled out his chequebook in Yerevan (Armenia’s capital city). The European Union has offered Armenia an unprecedented aid package of over 2.6 billion euros, 62 per cent more than previously promised.4
Armenia may be poorer than its neighbour, but Azerbaijan must undertake ground zero post-war reconstruction of the liberated territories. Thirty years of occupation and destruction has left nearly nothing standing; the area is now one of the most heavily mined areas in the world.5 To help with this mammoth task, Azerbaijan will receive just 140 million euros from the EU. Such favouritism does not build the trust that is necessary to mediate a peace settlement – and in the absence of security partnerships, it only reduces the EU to further irrelevance.
There is a structural issue inside the EU preventing it from playing a more balanced role in mediation, leaving it little clout except to shower money around
Furthermore, there is a contradiction in the Armenian aid package’s purpose. It is supposed to help Armenia’s regional reintegration after its past occupation had left the country isolated. The terms of last year’s ceasefire accord between Azerbaijan and Armenia spelled out the need to re-open borders and establish transport and logistics links between the two.6 However, 600 million euros will go towards a new highway south of Iran, bypassing Azerbaijan and requiring costly and lengthy construction through difficult terrain.
By specifically earmarking funds for this purpose, the EU has actively disincentivised a cheaper and strategically urgent corridor linking Azerbaijan to its isolated exclave Nakhichevan through Southern Armenia envisaged in the ceasefire agreement. By restoring a few tens of kilometres of disused Soviet era rail tracks running near its border, Armenia could simultaneously open its borders for trade with both Iran (through Nakhichevan) and Azerbaijan, and the wider region. No progress has since been made on rehabilitating the track.
The economic cooperation engendered by the line would strengthen the peace. It would also have a material impact for Europe: when complete, it shall be the fastest freight line from Europe to East Asia – the growth markets of the future.
It would also incorporate Armenia into the region. Borders to neighbouring Azerbaijan and neighbouring Turkey have been closed since the war in the 1990s. This has left Yerevan highly dependent on Moscow and powerless to reject any Russian-led integration projects in Eurasia – like when it opted for Vladimir Putin’s Eurasian Economic Union over closer connections to the EU. Belarus and its recent weaponisation of refugees on Europe’s frontier illustrate where total dependence on Moscow can lead.
Unilateral actions: shutting out the EU
However, not all the incoherence of EU actions that appear to be against its own interests can be laid at the feet of Michel. There is a structural issue inside the EU preventing it from playing a more balanced role in mediation, leaving it little clout except to shower money around. In many conflicts, unilateral actions by France and Germany have shut the EU out of negotiations, even though both countries stress the need for an EU common foreign and security and defence policy.
France sits alongside Russia and the US as co-chairs in the Minsk group, the forum charged with negotiating a resolution to the Karabakh dispute since the 1990s. However, President Emmanuel Macron’s vocal support for Armenia, driven by France’s large diaspora community, has undermined the position of France and the Minsk group as an honest broker. Indeed, much of Michel’s recent money spending will be seen in Baku as an extension of French bias.
To be a credible global actor, the EU must first be an effective regional one
The Normandy format, established in 2014 to oversee negotiations in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, has effectively become a bilateral forum for Moscow and Berlin. France and Germany have deprived the EU of the possibility to participate as a stand-alone actor in conflict resolution forums in the South Caucasus and Ukraine.
In agreeing to the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline as an alternative to pipelines running through Ukraine, Germany’s ‘beggar thy neighbour7 ’ unilateralist foreign policy has also undermined both EU sanctions against Russia and the development of a common foreign and security and defence policy. Ukraine and many in the bloc like Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Romania worry it will be used by Moscow to isolate and escalate its war against Ukraine, and – as seen during the current energy crisis – ratchet pressure on others in Europe reliant on Russian gas supplies.8
If those that call for a common defence policy with more strategic autonomy always sacrifice EU policy for national self-interest, a common and assertive EU foreign and defence policy will never materialise.
With American leadership absent from the global stage, Europe must step into the role. But to be a credible global actor, it must first be an effective regional one.
- 1‘Will the EU Shake off Its Lethargy Over the Protracted Conflicts in the Black Sea Region?’, Jamestown Foundation, 5 August 2021.
- 2‘The best defence: Why the EU should forge security compacts with its eastern neighbours’, European Council on Foreign Relations, 3 November 2020.
- 3Twitter status of Charles Michel, 18 July 2021.
- 4'Armenia gets aid boost from EU’, Eurasianet, 15 July 15 2021.
- 5‘Mines, Karabakh and Armenia’s crisis’, New Eastern Europe, 16 April 2021.
- 6‘Statement by President of the Republic of Azerbaijan, Prime Minister of the Republic of Armenia and President of the Russian Federation’, Kremlin, 10 November 2021.
- 7‘Beggar thy neighbour’ policy refers to the “an economic policy that benefits the country that implements it while harming that country’s neighbours or trading partners”. See: ‘Beggar-thy-neighbor policy’, Britannica, n.d.
- 8‘Ukraine gas chief urges Europe to resist Russia pressure on Nord Stream 2’, Financial Times, 1 November 2021.