The just-concluded Riga summit of the European Union’s Eastern Partnership delivered a clear message: the EU has no desire to offer any meaningful prospects of membership to the six partners (though only three, Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia, are really in play). Without this overarching inducement, the Eastern Partnership will soon degenerate into another exercise in bureaucratic futility.
In Riga there was in effect a seventh state engaged in the process, one that is not a partner and has no interest in becoming one: Putin’s Russia. Europe’s leaders, however, could not allow themselves to admit the virtual presence of this 800-pound gorilla in the room. Concerns over how Russia would respond to any further efforts to offer support to Ukraine made it impossible for the leaders to agree even on a statement condemning Moscow’s annexation of Crimea (Belarus and Armenia resisted it outright).
Like the entire European Neighborhood Policy, the EU’s Eastern Partnership, once a promising formula driven in tandem by Warsaw and Stockholm, is on its last legs. The reason is quite simple: economic costs aside, the European Union fears that taking on any additional obligations towards the partner countries will irritate the Kremlin. At this stage, Europe’s principal goal is to freeze the conflict in Ukraine, so any moves that could actually inject some life into the initiative are now hostage to this overarching concern. Hence, rather than clear support from the EU, Kiev faces an uphill battle just to hear clear words of recognition and encouragement of its European aspirations. Nothing could have been more revealing than the message delivered to the Bundestag by Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel in the period leading up to the summit. She argued that the Eastern Partnership is “not an instrument of EU expansion” but a means for coming closer to the EU. While the subtlety of this distinction may escape some, it will doubtless be read in the Kremlin as an unequivocal sign that Europe has no intention of stepping deeper into Russia’s “near-abroad” and challenging Mr. Putin’s claimed area of privileged interest. While we heard again that the EU’s DCFTA trade agreement with Ukraine is to be implemented in January 2016, this constitutes a delay—as demanded by Moscow—from the original fall 2014 deadline. Yet since the Russians have recently indicated that they want this pushed back yet again, it is far from certain whether this date will in fact hold. The same reluctance reigned in Riga on the issue of visa-free access to the EU for Ukraine and Georgia: maybe in 2016, or in 2017…or perhaps never. Likewise, the €1.8 billion loan offered to Ukraine raises the obvious question of how deep Europe will ultimately go in its commitment to stabilizing the country economically. Finally, the vaguely worded statement on the Partnership’s “high importance” does little to change the sense that the program is no longer a priority for Brussels. There was an incipient feeling in Riga that maybe the time has come to set this whole project aside and let it expire on its own.
The studied vagueness of the EU’s pronouncements in Riga stands in sharp contrast to the clarity with which Russia has communicated its demands for more than a year now, both in terms of what it wants and what it will not accept. Putin’s vision of a Eurasian Economic Union and a buildup of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, plus close bilateral security relations between Russia and its former post-Soviet republics, speak loudly to Russia’s geopolitical game.
There is no question that the EU’s demands for serious reforms and its insistence on normative criteria for association for partner countries is the right way to proceed. But conditionality works only when there is also a clear reward at the end of the road. When the dust has settled, Europe’s timidity in Riga and its unwillingness to offer Eastern Partnership countries a clear path to membership will be revealed as a major geostrategic mistake. Europe may be solidly postmodern when it comes to international relations and security, but its neighborhoods to the east and south are most assuredly not. With Ukraine at war and MENA on fire, it begs the question why the European Union would continue to trip over its own residual policies at a time when changes on the ground wrought by the return of geopolitics have irretrievably altered how the world “out there” functions these days. Ukraine is struggling to save itself from economic collapse while it faces another possible offensive by Moscow-sponsored rebels in Donetsk and Luhansk. Europe’s policy of normative conditionality for its neighbors will not work unless it offers the ultimate reward of EU membership.
The EU’s current “trust us, and maybe we will talk to you” approach is no match for the traditional statecraft and hard power that Russia exercises along its periphery.
CORRECTION (05/29/15): An earlier version of this piece misidentified Azerbaijan as one of the countries objecting to mentioning the Crimea annexation at the Riga summit. Belarus and Armenia were the two that objected