In the summer of 2013, the European Union, then in the midst of negotiations with the six countries of the Eastern Partnership (Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia), was far from realizing that it was entering an unprecedented period of turmoil in its immediate neighborhood. The EU has not yet escaped from that turmoil, with the result that Europeans today are asking themselves what choices they need to make in this part of the European continent.
It was Armenia that set the tone in July 2013 by deciding to abandon the draft Association Agreement that it was negotiating with the European Union. This announcement should have put the Europeans on their guard, as this decision—inspired by Russia, which wrongly perceived the EU’s policy as an attempt to encircle it—sowed the seeds of a growing and reciprocal lack of understanding. When former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych decided three months later to copy Armenia and refused to sign Ukraine’s draft Association Agreement, it was clear that the EU’s policy was entering an impasse. But still Europe did not seem to grasp the scale of the problem: the Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius in November of the same year recognized the obstacles but did not draw the necessary lessons. The Euromaidan revolution, which was to play out in Ukraine over the following months, seemed to prove the EU right and encouraged the union to hold firm. And yet, subsequent events in Ukraine showed that the Europeans were fooling themselves in thinking that Moscow’s concerns would subside and that Russian President Vladimir Putin would eventually come round to the EU’s arguments. In other words, Europe committed to playing in the big league without taking into account the strategic challenges involved. If the EU was right to want to establish agreements with its Eastern partners, it misunderstood the geopolitical context that surrounded its partnership project.
Today, the whole of Ukraine has been destabilized, with a conflict that has already cost more than 5,000 lives, produced more than 1 million refugees, and plunged the country’s economy into a depression that is unequaled in the region. The Minsk II agreement, negotiated in February 2015 by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande, had the merit of opening the possibility to a real deescalation; but the deal is being implemented amid repeated violations and has allowed the emergence in the Donbas of a new frozen conflict akin to those in Georgia and Moldova. On the eve of Thursday’s Eastern Partnership summit in Riga, pessimism is rife and certain member states are questioning the EU’s capacity and willingness to pursue its partnership with its Eastern neighbors.
So what can the EU do to pull itself together? First of all, Europe must see itself as a real geopolitical actor, capable of proposing a future architecture for the whole continent. That means knowing what type of relationship Europeans wish to develop with Russia, the countries of Central Asia, and even China, India, and Iran, as all of these partners have interests and ambitions in this area. This strategic reflection is under way in Brussels, and this is to be welcomed; but the process must be speeded up so that it does not conclude too late.
Europe must then set priorities, as it does not have the means to do everything. From this point of view, Ukraine should be the focus of the EU’s attention, as the best response to Russian interference is to make a success out of the Ukrainian economy and its modernization. That will require large financial efforts on the part of all of Kiev’s partners (almost $50 billion over the two following years) and constant vigilance with regard to the actions needed to put in place the rule of law. But if the Europeans do not engage in this path with resolve, they risk losing the battle for the democratic and economic transition in the East of our continent.
Finally, Europeans must stop asking themselves whether they should be talking to Moscow or not. This dialogue is already under way at the level of the member states; many European leaders have traveled to Moscow over recent months, but they have done so in a disconcerted and uncoordinated fashion. That is additional proof that the union lacks a clear line vis-à-vis Russia on the objectives it wishes to achieve. Europe must therefore reengage in dialogue with Moscow without fear of broaching all the issues on which it has interests to promote. These interests are in no short supply: Middle East, Iran, Libya, counterterrorism, the fight against drug trafficking, climate change, and more. It is high time for the European Union to regain the initiative and set a clear and firm course for its policy toward the Eastern neighborhood.