What does the EU want from its eastern partnership?
The EU's eastern partnership summit came and went last Friday without much fanfare, and not much by way of conclusions either, so there is no shortage of commentary wondering what the point of it all is.
Already before the summit, a background piece by Jana Kobzová argued that the EU has lumped together two groups of countries - Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine, on the one hand; and Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Belarus, on the other - that have little in common other than being former Soviet republics this side of the Urals. The former three would like a deeper association with the EU, while the latter are content with close economic ties. And, according to Kobzová the EU has adopted a lowest-common-denominator approach to the Eastern partnership that suits the more detached countries but hamstrings the more ambitious ones.
After the summit, Anders Åslund uses harsher language and gives a starker description of the divide within the Eastern partnership. To him Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine are fledging democracies, while the other three are authoritarian states, and the EU does the former no favours lumping them together with the latter. Both commentators note that the more ambitious countries aspire to EU membership, and lament that it is not really on offer.
This is all most visible in the case of Ukraine whose EU association agreement was on the brink of failure due to Dutch opposition in a referendum. Although the April 2016 Dutch referendum result was more intended to give the EU a black eye than motivated by any deep feelings about Ukraine either way, opposition to Ukraine's eventual EU accession did become a talking point of the 'no' campaign. This is similar to the bizarre role that Turkey's EU accession played in the Brexit referendum in the UK. The issue with Ukraine is that pursuing its association agreement has cost the country dearly - it led to the Maidan protests, the Russian annexation of Crimea and the breakaway provinces in the Eastern region of the Donbass bordering Russia. As an Atlanticist, Åslund is incensed by the EU's bland language in support of the "territorial integrity of its partners" with no mention of Russia. But Russia is involved not only in Ukraine but also in the Georgian breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and in Moldova's breakaway region of Transnistria on its border with Ukraine. And let's not forget the dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the region of Nagorno-Karabakh.
What is the EU planning to do about all this? Even without offers of EU accession, the EU's external action has a responsibility to broker some sort of resolution for all these frozen conflicts, if it is to be taken seriously.