After days of intensive and ultimately successful negotiations at the Eastern Partnership (EaP) Summit in Riga, the European Union must now swiftly move to the follow-up of the substantial commitments as outlined in the Joint Summit Declaration*.
Quite a number of public comments focus on the question whether Riga was a success or a failure. Having been deeply involved in the negotiations over the last months, I believe that such rather simplistic labels fall short of the complex strategic reality we face. Foreign policy rarely paints in black and white.
The Riga summit has to be seen not as an end in itself, and not as the end of a process. It is rather one of several top-level milestones within a much longer, gradual strategy of assisting our partners in their transformation process, while recognizing their diverging aspirations and capacities. The Summit will therefore also feed into the root and branch review of the European Neighbourhood Policy.
One of the most important takeaways from Riga is this: We have seen, more clearly than ever, the heterogeneity of our Eastern partners. This requires a differentiated approach and even more tailor-made strategies on the side of the EU,which is already one of the cornerstones of the ongoing ENP review.
Differentiation also means, from the perspective of our partners, their unalienable free choice. As highlighted in the Riga declaration: “The summit participants reaffirm the sovereign right of each partner to choose freely the level of ambition and the goals to which it aspires in its relations with the European Union”.
This sentence shows clearly that the EU is not trying to "impose" its policy on countries in order to, allegedly, enlarge its "sphere of influence". On the contrary, the Riga summit was a renewed confirmation of the European Union's deep respect of our partners’ independence, sovereignty and free choice. The Eastern Partnership is not directed against anybody, it is an offer which can be accepted or not.
The conditions attached to the assistance which we provide in the framework of this partnership safeguard that partner countries commit themselves to fundamental values: to democracy, human rights and the rule of law as well as to developing functioning market economies, macroeconomic stability and a productive business environment.
The signature of the joint declaration by all six partners is a strong demonstration of our shared commitment to these values and principles - a joint commitment of countries with different ambitions and capacities in an area dominated by fragmentation and frictions.
For our Eastern partners it is, of course, the concrete deliverables that count. A closer look at the Riga declaration shows how substantive these are. As for Ukraine, Riga re-confirmed fully the EU’s support for the country’s territorial integrity, independence and sovereignty as well as the EU’s unprecedented financial assistance. The signature of the Memorandum of Understanding in Riga providing € 1.8 bn in financial assistance to Ukraine is evidence of our continued support. Concerning Crimea and Sevastopol there is no lack of clarity either, calling it what it is: illegal annexation. In general, the declaration stresses the security aspect by highlighting the “importance of strengthening the resilience of Eastern European partners faced with new challenges for their stability.”
With regard to our partner countries engaged in ambitious Association Agreements/Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Areas (DCFTA) - Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova - I had the pleasure to announce the launch of a new Facility for Small and Medium Enterprises worth €200 million, unlocking new investments worth at least 2 billion. The financial means will be largely coming from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and the European Investment Bank (EIB). The DCFTA Facility for the three most advanced EaP countries is also a confirmation of the EU’s incentive-based approach (“more for more”).
One of the most discussed issues in the run-up to Riga was the granting of visa-freedom to Georgia and Ukraine. This is of course one of the most tangible offers extended to our partners. But let's be clear: this decision is based on technical, not political criteria. The Commission’s reports for both countries issued shortly before the Riga summit did not yet allow us to take this final step. But the summit acknowledged the good progress made by both countries in the implementation of their Visa Liberalisation Action Plans and welcomed the Commission’s continued support and intention to issue a progress report by the end of 2015. This offers a clear perspective for which I fought hard.
As for Armenia, Azerbaijan and Belarus, the summit reaffirmed the inclusiveness of the Eastern Partnership, which again shows our openness to apply tailor-made strategies. Negotiations with all three countries are ongoing to strengthen cooperation in clearly defined areas of mutual interest and within a scope that takes their existing commitments to other partnerships into account.
Last but certainly not least, there was of course the vividly discussed “European perspective”. As President Juncker stated, the Riga summit was not about EU-membership, the Eastern Partnership being a different concept than the Enlargement process. However, the summit clearly acknowledged the European aspirations of our EaP partners, which can only be turned into reality through hard and unwavering work on structural domestic reforms..
It has also to be stressed that the Association Agreements/DCFTAs constitute a very high level of partnership which should not be underestimated. Apart from the deep integration of the partners into the EU's internal market through these agreements, they also shape a very close political association. Generally, the stocktaking exercise undertaken in Riga shows what remarkable progress could be achieved with common work and commitment. This is more than just words - it is a “European Perspective” in action.
Finally, the Riga-summit also offered a variety of "side-events" which have to be considered, as mentioned in my opening speech, actually as main events. I enjoyed very much to participate in the civil society and the business forum because Eastern Partnership is not simply a partnership between political elites. It is a partnership between people who share the same interests, values and commitments. The success of the transformation process towards democratic, stable and prosperous countries within the EaP will very much depend on the active involvement of civil society in all its forms. I encouraged them in Riga to better link up with politics in order to maximise their impact.
The post Riga discussion process will continue throughout the process of the ENP review. But in parallel we need to pave the way for concrete progress on the ground. Both the EU and its partners have to deliver on the commitments made in Riga. We have to move from words to deeds, from declarations to implementation.
More strategically, the EU has to adapt its ENP to the reality on the ground: We need even more tailor made concepts and fine-tuning of our support for each of our Eastern partners. We have to define our European interests more astutely, and be more focused in defining priority areas of common interest. The countries themselves have to step up their efforts in order to fulfil the conditions for the envisaged progress within the AA/DCFTAs and with regard to visa liberalisation. Not to please us, but for their own benefit.
Those who expected spectacular results in Riga might be disappointed. Conversely, those who expected the Union to falter were also mistaken. But those who see the Eastern Partnership in a realistic way as “work in progress” will acknowledge Riga as a milestone towards a more realistic, more efficient and thus strengthened Eastern Partnership.
*Joint Riga Summit Declaration: https://eu2015.lv/images/news/2015_05_22_RigaDeclaration_EaP.pdf
Fact Sheet “Eastern Partnership: A Policy that delivers”: http://eeas.europa.eu/factsheets/docs/factsheet_eastern_partnership_en.pdf
Photos from the summit: