The EU plans to strengthen relations with Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, setting them apart from the other Eastern Partnership countries, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Belarus. EURACTIV France reports.
The official differentiation of the Eastern Partnership countries will be enacted when they meet in Riga this week, from 20 to 22 May. The group of six, Ukraine, Georgia, Belarus, Moldova, Azerbaijan and Armenia, will no longer be recognised as a single bloc by the EU.
The Eastern Partnership countries were presented with Association Agreements at a summit in Vilnius in December 2013. This summit went down in history as the moment that Ukraine’s President Yanukovych made the U-turn that pushed his country into crisis. His refusal to sign the EU Association Agreement unleashed protests that led to his departure from office.
Forming a two tier partnership
With Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and the war that has since unfolded in the Donbass region of Ukraine, the EU is now proceeding with caution. A source close to the French president said, “There is a lot of work to do with these countries, and we believe their individual characters should be taken into consideration.” Relations with Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova will be strengthened, while Azerbaijan, Armenia and Belarus will form a more loosely associated group.
François Hollande played a significant role in the latest negotiations, perhaps inevitably in view of the French involvement in the Ukraine peace process. President Hollande visited Azerbaijan and Armenia earlier in the Spring to discuss the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and reinforce France’s energy ties.
Eurasian Economic Union in the background
“Adherence to the Eurasian Economic Union is not incompatible with the EU Association Agreement, as the example of Armenia shows. We don’t want to put up a new iron curtain, we should not take a confrontational approach,” a French source said. The Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union, launched in 2015, includes Kazakhstan, Belarus and Armenia. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan also hope to join the union.
Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia have already strengthened relations with the EU since the Vilnius summit, signing Association Agreements in June 2014. Moldova’s EU relations are the most advanced in terms of free movement: Moldovan citizens no longer need a visa to enter the EU. According to the European executive, Ukraine and Georgia have not yet met the requirements for this step.
The EU’s interest in Azerbaijan and Armenia revolves largely around their energy reserves, even if increased cooperation is not a major priority today. Belarus is clearly the lowest of the EU’s priorities among the Eastern Partnership countries. Its imprisonment of political opponents to the regime is an insurmountable obstacle for European leaders.
The official differentiation between the two groups is a logical step in the evolution of relations since the Vilnius summit. During this period, the EU has provided massive financial support to Ukraine, and to a lesser extent to Moldova and Georgia. The three other countries do not have access to the same levels of financial aid, which is mainly used to support the education and judicial systems, as well as for economic development.