EU ministers redefine policy with Russia, Eastern neighbours

Germany's Frank-Walter Steinmeier and France's Marc Ayrualt at FAC Council, 17 October 2016. [European Council]

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”.

EU to label Russia a 'strategic challenge'

Until the illegal annexation of Crimea, the European Union had labelled Russia its “strategic partner”. But in the new EU Global Strategy on Foreign and Security Policy, which is expected to be unveiled at the end of June, the bloc will label Russia its “strategic challenge”, a diplomat said yesterday (30 May).

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.

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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.

France urges elections in Eastern Ukraine

French President François Hollande called on all parties in the Ukraine conflict to draw up a roadmap to end the crisis, after talks with his Ukrainian counterpart yesterday (13 October) in which he urged early elections to be held in rebel-held Eastern Ukraine.

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.

Moldova’s foreign minister: We have been dubbed a ‘last chance government’

The new government has a clear road map of what it has to do, developed together with its EU partners, Andrei Galbur, Deputy Prime-Minister, and Minister of Foreign Affairs and European Integration, told in an exclusive interview.

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.

Ruling party in Georgia decisively wins parliament vote

The ruling party in Georgia decisively won parliamentary elections, firming its grip on power in the former Soviet nation, near-complete results showed yesterday (9 October).

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.

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Armenians voted in a referendum on constitutional reforms on Sunday (6 December) which the opposition claims are aimed 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.

Release of jailed journalist signals improvement of Azerbaijan-EU relations

Azerbaijan yesterday (25 May) released jailed investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova, who was convicted of corruption charges last year, prompting reactions welcoming the country’s move toward press freedom and rule of law.

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.

New discoveries improve the Southern Gas Corridor’s prospects

Azerbaijan said natural gas produced in the Absheron offshore gas field in the Caspian Sea could be exported through the Southern Gas Corridor. Until now it was planned that only gas from Shah Deniz 2, another offshore field, would be sent to Europe.

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.

EU ends Belarus sanctions

The European Union on Thursday (25 February) formally lifted nearly all of its sanctions against Belarus, including President Alexander Lukashenko, citing improvements in the country’s human rights record.

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.

With eye on West, Belarus holds slightly freer election

Lawmakers loyal to hardline Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko retained power in an election yesterday (11 September), but the opposition’s win of a seat for the first time in 20 years could help the ex-Soviet nation further improve ties with the West.

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