Edgars Rink?vi?s, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Latvia, didn’t mince his words Thursday (26 February) when he called the summit of the Eastern Partnership his country is hosting next May, in its capacity as holder of the rotating EU presidency, “a survival summit”.
Speaking at a public event organised by the European Office of the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, Rink?vi?s said that three months before the Riga summit, on 21-22 May, there were “more open issues than ever”.
Indeed, the Eastern Partnership (EaP) appears to be an increasingly difficult attempt by the EU to deal with its European neighbours. The EU initiative covers Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, and has exacerbated EU relations with Russia.
The previous such summit, held in Vilnius in November 2013, marked the beginning of the Ukraine crisis when Viktor Yanukovich, the former President of Ukraine, refused to sign a landmark Association Agreement with the EU. The summit’s failure triggered massive pro-EU protests in Kyiv, which led to the eventual ousting of Yanukovich, and paved the way for the current crisis in eastern Ukraine, which supported the former President and its pro-Russian stance.
The Latvian foreign minister said that there was “a war” in Ukraine and that Russia wanted to revise the international security system, and set up an order in which it would have a say in the countries of its sphere of influence. He called this “a return to 19-century politics”.
Rink?vi?s said the EU needed to respond to the question as to what the end goal of this initiative is, because member states had no consensus on offering membership perspective to the Union to any of the countries covered.
The minister said there was a need to develop more individual approaches toward each of the partners. Three of them, Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia seek association, while Armenia has opted to join the Russia-led Customs Union of which Belarus is already a member, and Azerbaijan doesn’t want to change the present status of its relations with the Union, according to Rink?vi?s.
The Latvian minister said that some EU countries saw the Riga EaP summit as “talk about procedure”, but others, including his own, wanted “deliverables”. The jargon term apparently refers to the possibility of granting a visa-free regime to Ukraine and Georgia. In EU jargon, this is called “visa liberalisation”, while “visa facilitation” is offered to countries less advanced in the process of lifting the visa barrier with the EU.
Rink?vi?s said Belarus had played a constructive role over the last year, mentioning that the close ally to Moscow refrained from recognising Crimea’s annexation and hosted diplomatic meetings to seek solutions to the Ukraine crisis.
Asked if he would invite Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko to the Riga summit, he said that the wish of the hosts is that all countries be represented at the level of heads of state and government. Lukashenko, until recently called “Europe’s last dictator”, was previously excluded from EaP summits. But he added that this was a decision to be taken by consensus among the 28 member countries.
Rink?vi?s also said that his country wanted to advance the policy of supporting media freedom both at the Riga summit, but also throughout the presidency.
Asked about the proposal of setting up a Russian language TV station with the purpose of countering Russian propaganda, and presenting news objectively, he said that his country was very supportive, but that some questioned “where will we find objective journalists”.
EURACTIV asked Rink?vi?s if he thought that the merger of Daimler AG, of Germany, and Kamaz OJSC, of Russia, a producer of trucks, but also of a large variety of armoured vehicles, was compatible with the EU sanctions against Russia.
“You may imagine that the Commission most probably doesn’t have any reason not to approve the merger,” Rink?vi?s said. But he added that was “not imaginable” how such deals could take place, when Russia had annexed Crimea, and when there was evidence of some Russian military personnel being directly involved in the war in eastern Ukraine.
The Eastern Partnership, initiated by Poland and Sweden, was launched in 2009 with the aim of improving EU ties with Ukraine as well as Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia and Moldova.
The Eastern Partnership doesn’t offer the prospect of EU membership for the former Soviet republics, although it largely replicates the engagement used in the EU enlargement process.