Rare are the moments in international relations when one single moment can define and decide the shape of things to come, when years of foreign affairs manoeuvring come to a finish. The Third Eastern Partnership Summit which is set to take place in Vilnius on the 28-29 November may very well be the last chance for a flailing European Diplomacy, a make-or-break moment that can show, both inside and outside the EU how well the member states can really work together externally.
It has not been an easy mandate for Catherine Ashton. As the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, she had to deal with the Union’s response to the Arab Spring, the ensuing North African and Middle East Crises, and a back and forth relationship with the Eastern Partners.
Stefan Fule, the Union’s Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighbourhood Policy has an equally bleak outlook of his mandate so far. With just Croatia joining the EU, Iceland moving firmly away from a membership perspective and Turkey being more or less at the same level it was before he took office, Mr. Fule does not have a lot to show for his work so far. Some Western Balkans progress could be counted, yet we should remain sceptical as to the time it will take to get more results in the area.
With the Eastern Partnership in particular, real results are also yet to appear. In the case of Ukraine, the Tymoshenko scandal and the double standard shown by the member states, with some ignoring the case altogether, while others blowing it completely out of proportion, did little to enhance the coherence of the Union’s external image.
An Association Agreement which would set the country firmly on a European path was blocked for almost a year, an unfortunate mistake which only served to further Russian interests. The Kremlin of course helped fuel the fears of the Ukrainian public with its publications and politicians flooding the media of Ukraine with predictions of an impending disaster the second any Treaty is signed with the Europeans.
Afraid of losing its means for influence and revenue creation in other former satellites, the Russian Federation was busy at work while the Union and its foreign policy voices failed to make clear promises to the Eastern Partners for a long while. In Moldova, they blocked wine imports. In Azerbaijan, they used both the stick and the carrot, promising weapon sales while publicly menacing to do the same with Armenia.
They continued fuelling tensions in Georgia. Russia even put pressure on EU members, imposing random blockages of its borders with the Baltic States and making repeated threats on the possibility of its gas exports to European countries. Whether effective or not, it remains to be seen – but it is clear that this aggressive stance chosen by Russia is a clear signal that the European Union, geopolitically, is a rival.
The biggest victory for Russia however was getting newly re-elected Armenian president Serzh Sargsyan to agree with entering in the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union. We can ignore the appeasement type comments by some who claim that after such a deal would be signed, Armenian could also continue towards Europe – the previsions of the two bodies are clearly incompatible with each other.
Armenia would lose sovereign control over its external trade and this simply cannot work with signing any kind of enhanced deal with the European Union. Perhaps this more of a victory for the Kremlin than a failure of Brussels, but either way it will only make Vilnius more interesting.
In order to show that the Union can have a real foreign policy and an effective diplomacy, the Eastern Partnership Summit should have concrete results. We stumbled in front of the Arab Spring and muddled through crisis after crisis without clear and positive results for the European interests. What did Europe win in Libya, in the end? It can gain a lot from an enhanced partnership with both Ukraine and the South Caucasus.
It needs to fully address Moldova, the poorest country of the continent and closest hot spot for conflict – again one linked to Russian interests.
More than ever, in Vilnius the Union stands to gain. Signing the Agreement with Ukraine and pushing for one with Moldova and Georgia would cement Europe by truly securing its immediate borders. The Union diplomacy should also do more to attract a sceptical Azerbaijan, resource rich and strategically vital for the future energetic development of Europe, but to whom Europe has so far shown more the stick than the carrot. Finally, even Armenia might be pulled from the brink of a Eurasian deal it itself does not really want.
Such a move could even have the potential of giving the Union the much needed weight it needs to help find a new type of negotiation to solve the Nagorno-Karabakh occupation and really open the way for economic development in the area.
In the end, European Diplomacy would show its relevance and ability and would, for once, be able to come home with something to show for the efforts and resources spent on its development.
Otherwise, Vilnius might be the swan song for the Union as a foreign affairs experiment. Losing Ukraine alone would be a disaster, but every single country in the Eastern Partnership that Vilnius would fail would mean a heavy blow for European interests. So, for the men and women of the External Action Service and the DG Enlargement, together with their leaders, it’s the moment of showing what, if anything, they can really do.