Carnegie Europe hosted a media call on the EU’s forthcoming Eastern Partnership summit in Riga and the question of how the EU can develop a more sophisticated strategy toward its Eastern neighborhood. Balázs Jarábik, Pierre Vimont, and Richard Youngs participated in the call. Judy Dempsey moderated.
JUDY DEMPSEY: Okay, good afternoon, everybody, and thank you very much for phoning in two days before the Riga summit. You know who you’re speaking to; Pierre Vimont, Richard Youngs and Balázs Jarábik, who’s in Riga, first on the stage. We’ve only got 30 minutes and the idea is, keep your questions very short, please identify yourselves, keep your phone please on mute; it’s very, very important to prevent interference and make sure everybody can hear you, and there’ll be a podcast available afterwards. This phone-in will last for 30 minutes. So who’s first on the line please? And please identify yourself. Can you all hear me? Who wants to kick off this session? We’ve only 30 minutes.
JIM NEUGER: This is Jim Neuger with Bloomberg in Brussels. Am I audible?
JUDY DEMPSEY: Yes, absolutely. Good afternoon, thank you for phoning in. What’s your question?
JUDY DEMPSEY: Marvellous. A question for any of the participants; there’s been some recent diplomatic activity, resumed contact between the Americans and Russia. Victoria Newland was there on Monday; Stoltenberg of NATO met Lavrov in Brussels today. Do you see this as any sign of renewed Western outreach to Russia heading towards some sort of normalisation? And if so what impact does that have on the EU’s relations with the countries sandwiched between it and Russia?
JUDY DEMPSEY: Okay, who would like to take these questions? Pierre Vimont will take this question.
PIERRE VIMONT: I personally don’t think it is, it doesn’t make a change in our relationship with the United States. It’s part of the ongoing dialogue we’ve had with – many are having with Russia and I think we’ll see more of this as we go on because [inaudible 00:02:18] be discussed, not only in Europe, by the way, [inaudible 00:02:22] with regard to Syria, the Iran negotiation and so on.
I think this is something we have to take into account both with regard to the Eastern partnership and Ukraine in itself. The situation remains much the same as it has been during the last few weeks and I don’t see much room for optimism for the time being, for instance with regard to the implementation of what has been called the Minsk 2 agreement.
JUDY DEMPSEY: Thanks for that, Pierre. Those who’ve just joined the line, welcome. We’ve only 30 minutes left. My name is Judy Dempsey. I’m moderating this phone-in. Please put your phones on mute. There’ll be a podcast afterwards. If you can keep your phone on mute it’ll reduce the interference; there’s an awful lot of static on the line. Next question, please. Please identify yourself and one question, quite short, please.
ANNE BAUER: Hi, Anne Bauer from the newspaper Les Echos. Can I go on?
JUDY DEMPSEY: Yes, hi, please.
ANNE BAUER: This morning they were saying in the official press briefing that the Riga summit was much about confirming, just restating that the European policy is working. So it was just a bit confusing because what happened in Vilnius was not expected and I was wondering in what way the Ukrainian situation is having an impact on all these agreements which will be reaffirmed in Riga with the other countries.
JUDY DEMPSEY: Thank you for the question. Who would like to take…? Ukraine situation; what kind of impact it will have or is it having an impact on the Riga summit?
BALÁZS JARÁBIK: If you don’t mind, I will try; Balázs Jarabik speaking. Just very quickly, I think the biggest problem or the biggest challenge of the Riga summit is the actual wording of the declaration. This is going on for weeks if not months with the partnering countries or the Eastern partnership countries and indeed it’s the Ukrainian crisis, diverting around the Ukrainian crisis and impact on the Eastern partnership which is very hard to grasp for the European diplomats.
At the same time I also think it’s a credit for the Latvian EU presidency. The Latvians from the very beginning were saying, we don’t want to have the hype of the Vilnius summit, we want to have a very realistic summit. Compared to Vilnius but particularly compared to, for example, a month or two months ago, it seems when it comes to participation that it’s going to be a quite successful summit since there’re going to be four presidents and two prime ministers, including the Belarussian Prime Minister, if I’m not mistaken, participating, which is essentially higher than in Vilnius. Belarus only participated with their foreign ministry.
When it comes to the actual delivery I would also say that this is work in progress. I think it’s very significant that the Russians came out as well, earlier diplomatically but this is in the media now, that they’re not going to block the EU/Ukraine association agreement and the trade deal, the DCSDA, which has nothing to do with the summit, I assume, but the negotiations, the trilateral negotiations which are ongoing from January 1st. But I think it’s a very positive, important message during the Riga summit as well.
JUDY DEMPSEY: Thanks for that, Balázs. Next question, please. Please identify yourself and try to keep it short. Keep your phones on mute, please.
HEIDI JENSEN: Hi, it’s Heidi Jensen, Danish journalist from Jyllands-Posten.
JUDY DEMPSEY: Yes, hi, Heidi.
HEIDI JENSEN: Hi. The President of Ukraine has been asking for more than the European states have so far been willing to give in terms of promising EU membership at some point in the future. Is there a risk that he might go back empty-handed and end up being weakened after the summit?
JUDY DEMPSEY: Okay, interesting question. Who would like to take that? Pierre, Richard, Balázs?
RICHARD YOUNGS: Shall I come in?
JUDY DEMPSEY: Yes, please, Richard. This is Richard Youngs.
RICHARD YOUNGS: I think on the issue of membership perspectives, the leaders are probably likely to go back empty-handed and I think, related to the previous question, my impression is that the Ukraine crisis has made the EU rhetorically more committed to the Eastern partnership and more determined to declare the Eastern partnership a success but I think in practice it’s making many of the governments a little bit more cautious to [inaudible 00:06:57] additional things to the Eastern partnership countries at the moment. Therefore I think that’s why this summit may be rather low-key in terms of tangible deliverables.
I think, as Pierre was saying at the beginning, it’s probably a mistaken assumption to assume that this is all about the negotiation track just with Russia. I think in fact the EU needs to get its policy right with the individual Eastern partnership countries if they’re to become more resilient states, able to make their own strategic choices vis a vis Russia. It is in the EU’s interests to make sure that they’re able to do that.
JUDY DEMPSEY: Interesting. Please silence your phones. I know there’s a little child wanting to ask a question but I’m afraid it mightn’t work. Next question, please. Please identify yourself and keep it short. Yes, please, go on. Another question. Time is running short, we have to end this call at 4:00pm. Balázs, do you want to come in here? Would Poroshenko indeed be weakened if he went back empty-handed? I don’t think he has any illusions about this, has he?
BALÁZS JARÁBIK: Poroshenko has no illusions perhaps but he has public declarations that the Ukraine is going to be in five years within the European Union so the Ukrainians, particularly the Presidential administration and the President are trying to deliver something which is unfortunately not – as Richard mentioned and I fully agree – going to be even on the agent [?] and it’s certainly not going to be in the declaration.
It’s kind of unfortunate that the Ukrainians are pushing these kind of big promises from the EU instead of focussing on important things; for example the Government just announced that they may go bankrupt if there is no agreement by the 31st; it’s the same week that this is happening.
One more point which I think is important; compared to the Vilnius summit we want tangible results, something to sign and all this. At the same time I think it’s very important to take stock of what happened. A, there is a ratification process almost finished when it comes to Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia. This is not finished yet and this is not necessarily the problem of the Eastern partnership countries, this is a ratification process within the EU so that EU needs to finish first that process. That’s number one.
Number two, a lot of work has been done, particularly with Armenia and Belarus.
JUDY DEMPSEY: No, Moldova.
BALÁZS JARÁBIK: Well, Moldova is a big disillusionment because of the ongoing corruption.
JUDY DEMPSEY: I thought you said Romania.
BALÁZS JARÁBIK: Sorry, Armenia and Belarus.
JUDY DEMPSEY: Oh, Armenia, I beg your pardon. Sorry about that, yes.
BALÁZS JARÁBIK: Armenia is getting back from the cold, they refused the EU as well before the Vilnius summit and the negotiations and the talks with Belarus essentially were picked up in the Vilnius summit and there has been a lot of diplomacy and a lot of compact-building with Belarus and they almost – but in the end they’re not going to sign this visa liberalisation agreement.
They were very close and essentially last week I was talking to an EU diplomat and they were saying that they were going to sign a visa liberalisation with Belarus here in Riga. This is just not going to happen.
JUDY DEMPSEY: Thank you very much, Balázs, for that. Anybody who’s joined, hello, welcome. We have to end this call at 4:00pm. Please ask a question and if you could identify yourself and put your phones on mute. Thank you. Okay, next question, please.
HEIDI JENSEN: I have another question; this is Heidi Jensen from Jyllandsposten. You were just mentioning visa liberalisation. Moldova got this already last year and they have a lot of problems with corruption and other things, they haven’t control over its border. What possible argument can the EU have not to give it to Ukraine and [overtalking]?
JUDY DEMPSEY: Okay, thanks, good question. Who would like to pick that up, Pierre, Richard? As Heidi has said, if Moldova has it, why not Ukraine, for instance? Pierre.
PIERRE VIMONT: I think the problem with Ukraine is not a matter of principle when the European Union is not ready to give visa liberalisation to Ukraine. It’s about time. The idea is from the negotiators, they need a little bit more time to come up to a real, solid agreement and so they’re not ready for the Riga summit and they have tried to do their best but I think this should come later.
JUDY DEMPSEY: Pierre, can I come in here? Is it on the technical issue of the visa issue, is it a question of the security of the borders or is it a more political issue?
PIERRE VIMONT: No, I don’t think so. I think it’s about, the people who negotiate are looking precisely at all the details about this practical arrangement to be sure that the visa will be issued in the right way with all the security that is needed and a guarantee.
JUDY DEMPSEY: I see. Yes, please.
PIERRE VIMONT: Could I just add one point maybe as we’re talking about timing?
JUDY DEMPSEY: Yes.
PIERRE VIMONT: I think it’s also important to understand that Riga is in the middle of a process that the European Union has launched in reviewing the whole European neighbourhood policy so Riga will not be the moment for looking at whether we should change the Eastern partnership or not. This is more of a stock-taking exercise. The review of the European neighbourhood policy – and that will mean also the Eastern partnership and Southern neighbourhood – will come in in October or maybe later on when the Commission and the ES will come up with a draft communication on this that will be discussed by the member states.
So I think we have to make the difference between [overtalking] and a process that is going on and that will come to fruition later on.
JUDY DEMPSEY: Clearly though it’s very much top of the agenda, which is quite reassuring and very important in the G8…
BALÁZS JARÁBIK: Yes, if I may, one short comment. I agree with Pierre. Also this is the framework I was talking about, that the Ukraine inside the Government unfortunately were not able, because of the time and also because of other issues like the war in Donbass, were not able to deliver the technical conditions, the biometric passports’ issuance and a couple of simply technical things on which the EU could not move forward. This is very technical as far as I see from here.
JUDY DEMPSEY: Okay, thanks, Balázs. Next question; please identify yourself, make sure your phone is mute and your question please.
ANNE BAUER: Anne Bauer, Les Echos. Hi. What is the measure of the success or the failure of this summit, if it’s just stock-taking of where we are?
JUDY DEMPSEY: Okay, how do you measure success? Gosh. Richard, do you want to come in, Pierre?
ANNE BAUER: What do we journalists have to pay attention to?
JUDY DEMPSEY: I know, you need your headline. I thought I’d make it succinct.
ANNE BAUER: Sorry for this very basic question.
JUDY DEMPSEY: No, it’s important. I think it’s been coming through in all the answers. Richard, do you want to have a stab at this?
RICHARD YOUNGS: My impression is that the threshold for declaring it a success has been set relatively low, which maybe is understandable given the geopolitical moment we’re in and the conflict and the EU’s internal processes of review but that in itself doesn’t solve the problems that the Eastern partnership countries are facing in terms of their own governance problems, rising levels of corruption and I do think over the medium term at least we need to keep an eye on those separate from what’s happening in the Donbass region.
I think the previous question was about the visa liberalisation that was granted to Moldova. That’s been a rather sobering experience given that since that was offered the problems of corruption have, if anything, got worse in Moldova and opinion polls seem to be suggesting that opinion has become more favourable to the Eurasian Union rather than to the EU, all of which suggests that the EU’s offering a lot of good things to the Eastern partnership countries but the message perhaps isn’t getting through as much as it needs to that the EU is there to assist. I think that’s something, for instance, which does need to be dealt with at Riga.
JUDY DEMPSEY: Yes, good point, thanks, Richard, for that. Next question, please; just quickly identify yourself; one question, keep it short.
HELEN MAGUIRE: This is Helen Maguire from the German press agency, DPA.
JUDY DEMPSEY: Hi, Helen.
HELEN MAGUIRE: Hello. I was wondering if maybe this new differentiated approach almost presages a little bit what the new European neighbourhood policy is going to look like, maybe less idealistic and more pragmatic about what co-operation with these countries can bring.
JUDY DEMPSEY: Good question. Who’d like to take that on? Less idealistic, more pragmatic.
PIERRE VIMONT: I’m ready to move in.
JUDY DEMPSEY: Yes, thanks, Pierre Vimont.
PIERRE VIMONT: I think it’s right, I think it’s going to be maybe more pragmatic, less realistic but I think more than anything else differentiation is already there on the ground. It’s certainly true with the Eastern partnership where you have now three out of the six countries that have association agreements, the other ones being somewhat more hesitant about the kind of integration they would like to have and at least would like to have some sort of integration that is tailor-made to their own interests and their own situation.
One could say more or less with the Southern neighbourhood also where now you can really detect different categories of countries in the Southern neighbourhood that will also need differentiated according to their own interest and situation. So I think this is a trend we’re going to see more and more and to some extent I think the European Union is running after reality and after the events as they are unfolding already on the ground.
JUDY DEMPSEY: Yes, it’s a very good point. Anybody got…? Yes, Balázs.
BALÁZS JARÁBIK: I would also say I fully agree with Pierre here. This fragmentation or differentiation is the reality on the ground and if the EU wants to remain relevant and the Eastern partnership wants to remain relevant they need to adapt to the reality on the ground as well, otherwise we’re just not going to effectively assist and we’re not coping with the actual issues. That’s number one.
Number two; if you take a look what differentiation means, Ukraine essentially already outgrew the Eastern partnership. There is an EU Ukraine support group in Brussels, there is an EU advisor in national security sector with 170 people on the ground, [unclear 00:17:26] by assistance-wise [?] so it’s going to participate within the association agreement on these countries but essentially by focus, by attention, by assistance outgrew the Eastern partnership.
The other thing, when it comes to the Caucasus, I think it’s very important what I said; the EU and Belarus have no legal framework. A PCA at least which was frozen in 97 if the elections are going to be managed within the expectations then should be the next step and Azerbaijan is very important, that it’s still participating and the human rights situation is worsening significantly. So I would say even more human rights from Azerbaijan for access to the Eastern partnership and buying oil; oil for human rights, let’s say.
JUDY DEMPSEY: Yes, which corresponds to Helen’s viewpoint; pragmatic, more differentiation; and what Pierre was saying as well. Next question, please. We’ve got 12 minutes left. Yes. There’re people still coming in. Good afternoon, whoever’s phoned in. We’ve got 12 minutes left and anybody wanting to ask a question, please do and make it short and identify yourself and please keep your phones mute. Next question, please.
JIM NEUGER: It’s Jim Neuger from Bloomberg again.
JUDY DEMPSEY: Yes, hi, Jim, again.
JIM NEUGER: Can I get your assessment of the EU and international economic support for Ukraine, not at this summit necessarily but more broadly? Will it be enough to turn Ukraine into a more modern, competitive economy or is Ukraine destined to be economically handicapped for a long time to come?
JUDY DEMPSEY: We should try to keep focus on the Riga summit, if we try to answer this as succinctly as we can. Who would like to take this very complex question on? Richard?
RICHARD YOUNGS: Yes. For me it’s not a question so much of the absolute amounts of money. The amounts of money look quite significant. I think the key for the EU is to get the conditionality right, the kind of conditions that it attaches to the assistance and it’s a very fine line, fine balance it has to draw. If the conditions are too rigid obviously Ukraine risks defaulting and descending into a very dangerous downward spiral. But if the EU doesn’t attach any conditions at all then the money’s being poured into a black hole, which I think to some extent is what has happened previously.
So I think it is a question of relevance to the Riga summit because this issue of getting the question of conditionality right is one that’s at the centre of the review process that Pierre was talking about, which I think will be key to the EU’s future influence in Ukraine.
JUDY DEMPSEY: [Inaudible 00:20:13].
BALÁZS JARÁBIK: If I may, one more thing. I think it’s very important – and I’m going back to my original thesis but unfortunately – and I’m really emphasising unfortunately – Ukraine is currently starting to behave like a victim and, the EU and the [?] should bail us out not because of the merits but because we have the moral high ground due to Russian aggression. So Ukraine is essentially bankrupt and all the conditions, even people’s trust that it’s only going to be better is there but the Government reform efforts are not there and there’s no merit and these are the small steps that Ukraine should focus on more instead of the big words and the big promises. Even those would be essential steps when it comes to the economy and the negotiations with the creditors.
JUDY DEMPSEY: That’s quite important actually in terms of the Government’s relationship with the public. Thanks, Balázs. Next question please; just give us your name and keep the question to the point.
HELEN MAGUIRE: This is Helen Maguire again. If you don’t mind, I have another question. I was just wondering, what signals do you think Russia will be looking out for out of the summit or are they not particularly bothered by what’s going to be happening in Riga this week?
JUDY DEMPSEY: Thanks for that, Helen, good question. It’s been touched on that Russia didn’t – I wouldn’t quite say indifferent but hasn’t been giving any very tough language against the summit. Does anybody want to take this question on?
BALÁZS JARÁBIK: I can from Riga. I think, in context, before Vilnius there was this dramatic Yanukovich [unclear 00:21:52] due to Timoshenko and there were 34 trips by EU Commissioners, I mean envoys, special envoys for the Timoshenko case and this leading up to the Vilnius summit, there was hype [?] and the Russians reacted.
There’s no such thing. The Latvians are essentially handling it in a much more realistic manner, which I think is very important, and number two, they’re essentially regularly communicating with the Russians, not about the summit but trying to keep them in the loop.
And number three, they were on a trilateral, there were at least three meetings between the Russians and the Ukrainians and the Europeans about the DCFDA and what does it bring and that’s really the case and the Russians dropped their 2,500-point amendments to change this and I think that’s a very positive step.
I think it’s very important as well, just hearing this conference I am, what the Belarus foreign minister said privately, that when it comes to the dialogue between the EU and the Eurasian Union, the Eurasian Union is not at the necessary technical level to do any dialogue.
So that’s also part of the Russian aggression, that they’re not at the level to cope in a dialogue so that’s replaced by an aggressive behaviour.
JUDY DEMPSEY: Thanks, Balázs, that’s very interesting. Next question, please. Just give us your name and make the question short. We’ve only got about seven minutes left.
A very quick question to the three of you; are you surprised that Belarus is being represented by somebody so high, the Prime Minister?
PIERRE VIMONT: For me, Judy, or…?
JUDY DEMPSEY: Yes, anybody.
BALÁZS JARÁBIK: Okay. I think it’s a natural next step when it comes to the relationship. It’s an acknowledgement about all the diplomatic effort between the two countries as well as an appreciation of Belarus’ role to regulate the Ukrainian crisis and the Minsk talks so I think it’s a natural next step.
At the same time I think it’s very important that Lukashenko is not coming simply because of the policy that he’s made and the human rights situation, which is still valid.
PIERRE VIMONT: Just to add something, Judy, I still think it is – and I totally agree – a very interesting step because a few days ago the Latvian presidency was only expecting either the foreign minister or a deputy prime minister so to go up to the level of prime minister [inaudible 00:24:26] what we have seen during all the Ukrainian crisis, that Belarus is sending messages to the European Union that need to be taken into account at some stage.
JUDY DEMPSEY: Yes, this is very interesting and also Lukashenko didn’t attend the Moscow Victory Day parade. Next question, please; looking forward to it.
HEIDI JENSEN: This is Heidi Jensen, Danish journalist again, from Jyllands-Posten.
JUDY DEMPSEY: Excuse me, just one thing, Heidi. I don’t want to interrupt you but does anybody else want to come in quickly? If no-one, Heidi, go ahead.
HEIDI JENSEN: Okay. Kerry was visiting Lavrov the other day and there might be some signalling here that the US is focussing their attention away from Ukraine. I’m just wondering whether the presidency of the EU will go to Luxembourg and Netherlands and then to the Mediterranean. Might there be less focus on this area in future in spite of the reaffirmation at the summit, do you think?
JUDY DEMPSEY: Okay, who wants to take that question up; will focus shift after the Latvian presidency’s over?
PIERRE VIMONT: This is Pierre; maybe I can try. I think this is a concern that many of the Baltic countries or Poland and others have been having, if you look at the next rotating presidencies as they come in. But I tend to think that it is not going to work that way, if only because of what we have seen in Ukraine and because of the Ukrainian question, because don’t forget that now the Ukrainian crisis is on the agenda of the foreign ministers here in Brussels nearly every month. They are also very much aware that they need to keep a close hand on this and to keep a close watch on what’s going on there.
JUDY DEMPSEY: That’s reassuring. Next question, please. We literally have four minutes left. It’d be very nice to get a couple – we still have room for a couple more questions if they’re short and to the point.
ANNE BAUER: Anne Bauer again; the heads of state from the European side; are they coming because of the Eastern partnership or are they coming because of Greece?
JUDY DEMPSEY: Greece will be there.
ANNE BAUER: Apparently they will come, expect [unclear 00:26:45] and I don’t know the third one, I think [unclear 00:26:49] but all of them are coming.
JUDY DEMPSEY: I think they have to. I’m sorry, as a moderator I shouldn’t interfere. Pierre or Balázs.
PIERRE VIMONT: Let me.
JUDY DEMPSEY: Yes, please, Pierre.
PIERRE VIMONT: I think they’re coming for both. They’re coming first of all because it is a message they wanted to send to Russia but they will cite this opportunity also to have a sight-line discussion with Greece maybe on many other things. It’s quite impressive to see how they manage to discuss many other issues when they meet in the [overtalking] the European Council and summits like the Riga one.
JUDY DEMPSEY: Thank you, Pierre, for an elegant answer.
ANNE BAUER: Diplomatic answer.
JUDY DEMPSEY: Yes. Two more minutes; another question out there? Can I ask the three of you one very short question? If conditionality is so important and as we have divested so much money in Moldova, why hasn’t the conditionality worked in Moldova?
RICHARD YOUNGS: This is Richard. I think in Moldova there’s a case of saying the conditionality – we’ve been rather overly favourable to a pro-European coalition because if it’s pro-European it’s the best bet for a European identity for Moldova so perhaps some of the corruption issues and the political pathologies have been overlooked.
I think it’s a very delicate balance to call [?] so I think in Moldova that’s perhaps a slight risk. I’m sure European diplomats are aware of that balancing act.
JUDY DEMPSEY: Oh, yes.
BALÁZS JARÁBIK: Yes, if I may very quickly, I think this is very important, like last week when there was this big protest against the billion-dollar fraud, people would come out with European flags. What we see in the polls and all these changes essentially; it’s domestic politics, they’re really disillusioned with the political coalition which the EU has been backing from the very beginning.
I think this would be more critical for the EU for more inclusive domestic approaches in these countries. Instead of backing one side, which are pro-European, they should believe at [?] every side because this is essentially a country, it is not a political party, not a parliament.
JUDY DEMPSEY: That’s a good point, yes. Indeed the EEAS representative has been saying that too, down in Chisinau. I think that our time is up actually unless any of our respondents want to give a quick overview, a very quick conclusion to Riga. Or we have room for one tiny, quick question. Otherwise we have to call it a day.
I think that’s it. Yes? Thank you very, very much, everybody, for participating. I hope it was very, very useful. Thank you, Pierre, Balázs and Richard for participating. Best of luck in Riga, everybody, thank you.
BALÁZS JARÁBIK: Thank you, bye.
Balázs Jarábik is a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where his research focuses on Ukraine and Eastern Europe.
Pierre Vimont is a senior associate at Carnegie Europe, where his research focuses on the European Neighborhood Policy, transatlantic relations, and French foreign policy.
Richard Youngs is a senior associate in Carnegie’s Democracy and Rule of Law Program. He is an EU foreign policy expert, in particular on questions of democracy support.
Judy Dempsey is a nonresident senior associate at Carnegie Europe and editor in chief of the Strategic Europe blog.