The member states’ 28 foreign ministers redefined yesterday (17 October) the Union’s foreign policy priorities for 2016 and the basis of its relations with Russia and the countries of the Eastern neighbourhood.
The 51-page document touches upon all aspects of foreign relations, but the Russia relations are particularly significant, because the EU summit on Thursday and Friday (20 and 21 October) will hold a policy debate on its Moscow relations, which has not happened since Russia was called “the EU’s strategic partner”.
In 2016, the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) will focus on the two acute crises in the EU’s neighbourhood, in which Russia plays an important part.
“To the east, Russia’s violation of international law and the destabilisation of Ukraine, on top of protracted conflicts in the wider Black Sea region, challenge the European security order at its core. To the south, efforts will continue to focus on bringing the conflict in Syria to a close. In addition to deepening regional instability and insecurity, the crisis in Syria also has an impact on the EU internally – both as a major security risk and in terms of mass movement of people fleeing to safety”, the document says.
Vis-à-vis Russia, the Union will continue its double-track approach of firmness coupled with diplomatic outreach, keeping communication channels open and “selectively engaging” with Russia on issues where there is a clear EU interest, such as Syria, Libya, the Middle East Peace Process, Afghanistan, Iran, as well as other global issues. Regional and cross-border cooperation programmes are also ongoing.
The EU will continue raising human rights issues with Russian interlocutors and will intensify its support to Russian civil society, as well as contacts between our peoples, the ministers decided.
They took note of the OSCE findings with respect to restrictions on fundamental freedoms and political rights, firmly controlled media and a tightening grip on civil society, as well as shortcomings related to candidate registration and the legal framework, that negatively affected the electoral environment ahead the elections for the State Duma in the Russian Federation.
The EU does not recognise the illegal annexation of Crimea and Sevastopol by the Russian Federation and therefore does not recognise the holding of elections in the Crimean peninsula, the ministers stated. They also expect that “all states” that are in a position to assist the investigation and prosecution of those responsible for the tragedy of flight MH17 must do so.
Regarding the six countries of the Eastern Partnership (EaP), the ministers make a differentiation between Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, who chose the path of EU association, and Armenia, Azerbaijan and Belarus, who seek different types of relations with the Union.
Visa-free travel, which already applies for the citizens of Moldova, could soon apply to Georgian and Ukrainian nationals that hold biometric passports as well, after its confirmation that the countries have successfully met all benchmarks under their respective Visa Liberalisation Action Plans.
Regarding Ukraine, the ministers note that the country’s economy has been stabilised largely thanks to EU support. They note that further efforts are needed, notably as regards to the rule of law, fight against corruption and the creation of a conducive environment for foreign investments.
An EU-Ukraine summit to be held on 24 November in Brussels is expected to provide further impetus to the political association and economic integration of Ukraine with the EU.
Although the EU is not part of the “Normandy format” which seeks to find a solution to the conflict in Eastern Ukraine, which is controlled by pro-Russian separatists, the EU pledges to support those diplomatic efforts.
A summit in “Normandy format” (Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France) was expected to take place in Berlin on 19 October, but it was decided that more preparation time was needed.
Regarding Moldova, ministers note that 2015 had been a year of political instability, and that a new government had improved the situation since it look office last January.
Ministers welcomed the parliamentary election held in Georgia on 9 October and said they look forward to working with the new government. The EU will continue to support Georgia’s efforts to overcome the consequences of conflict in Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which have been occupied by Russia since the war in August 2008.
Regarding Armenia, the focus of relations is on the negotiation of a new framework, which will replace the association agreement, after the country decided to join the Russia-led Eurasian Union.
Following the constitutional referendum held last December, it is important for Armenia to implement the new Electoral Code and all OSCE and CoE recommendations well before the next parliamentary elections in 2017, the ministers state. The opposition claims the referendum aims at keeping the ex-Soviet state’s President, Serzh Sargsyan, in power.
The EU will contribute, as the main donor, to cover most of the financial burden for the forthcoming parliamentary elections, the ministers stated. Armenia plans parliamentary elections in April 2017.
Regarding Azerbaijan, the ministers note that the aim is to launch negotiations on a new Comprehensive Agreement.
“Although there has been some progress in the country’s human rights situation, it still remains a concern”, the minister state.
The document stresses that Azerbaijan has a key role in the diversification of EU’s energy supplies. The Southern Gas Corridor, once completed, has the potential to increase Azerbaijan’s share of the EU energy market and to establish the country as a gateway for the supply of gas from the eastern and southern banks of the Caspian Sea, the ministers note.
Regarding Belarus, ministers note that in February most restrictive measures have been lifted, which contributed to the improvement of relations. Nevertheless, the EU remains concerned about human rights, democracy and the rule of law situation in the country.
As Belarus has not yet abolished the death penalty, ministers urge the country to set up without delay a formal moratorium on executions as a first step towards abolition of the death sentence. “There is now an opportunity for EU-Belarus relations to develop a more positive agenda including commencing work on the agreement of joint Partnership Priorities”, ministers note.
Reportedly, Belarus has improved its standing with the EU since its leader Alexander Lukashenko refused to recognise the annexation of Crimea by Russia and played a constructive role hosting summits for seeking a solution to the conflict in Eastern Ukraine.