Stay­ing the course in Europe’s east

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

As the Euro­pean Union’s lead­ers gath­ered in Riga for a sum­mit with the six mem­bers of the EU’s “Eastern Part­ner­ship,” many re­call the dra­matic meet­ing in Vil­nius of Novem­ber 2013. It was there that Ukraine’s thenpres­i­dent, Vik­tor Yanukovych, un­der heavy Rus­sian pres­sure, re­fused to sign the EUUkraine As­so­ci­a­tion Agree­ment that had been ne­go­ti­ated from 2007 to 2012.

Of course, when Yanukovych re­turned home, he had to face thou­sands of pro­test­ers in Kyiv’s Maidan (In­de­pen­dence Square). Determined to hold him to his prom­ise to sign the EU agree­ment and not take Ukraine into a cus­toms union with Rus­sia, the pro­test­ers mo­bilised the coun­try. Yanukovych, fail­ing to crush them with his se­cu­rity forces, sim­ply fled. Rus­sia’s be­hav­iour in Ukraine since then has made the Eastern Part­ner­ship more im­por­tant than ever.

The Eastern Part­ner­ship was launched in 2009 on the ini­tia­tive of Poland and Swe­den, where I was the for­eign min­is­ter at the time. The aim was to re­spond to the de­sire of Ar­me­nia, Azer­bai­jan, Be­larus, Ge­or­gia, Moldova, and Ukraine for some of the in­stru­ments of in­te­gra­tion that had helped trans­form the cen­tral Euro­pean and Baltic coun­tries into the democ­ra­cies – and now EU mem­bers – that they are to­day.

The Eastern Part­ner­ship was also seen as a way to bal­ance the EU’s “Rus­sia first” ap­proach. Enor­mous re­sources had been in­vested in the re­la­tion­ship with Rus­sia, but very lit­tle had gone into help­ing the coun­tries in the neigh­bour­hood that the EU and Rus­sia share – in­clud­ing the most im­por­tant of th­ese neigh­bours, Ukraine.

Un­til 2013, the EU’s Eastern Part­ner­ship seemed to raise no con­cerns in the Krem­lin. It was never brought up at any of the nu­mer­ous high-level bi­lat­eral meet­ings, nor at any meet­ing in which I par­tic­i­pated. The Krem­lin prob­a­bly re­garded it as ir­rel­e­vant.

That changed af­ter Vladimir Putin re­turned to Rus­sia’s pres­i­dency in 2012. His main geopo­lit­i­cal project was now the cre­ation of the Eurasian Union, which he knew could not suc­ceed with­out forc­ing Ukraine off of its EU path and into his em­brace.

While the EU’s vi­sion of “wider Europe” re­lies on soft power, eco­nomic in­te­gra­tion, and long-term in­sti­tu­tion build­ing, Putin’s “wider Rus­sia” pol­icy de­pends on in­tim­i­da­tion and vi­o­lence. The EU pur­sues long-term geo-eco­nomics, whereas the Krem­lin plays short-term hard­ball geopol­i­tics.

That is why, soon af­ter Yanukovych de­cided to flee to Rus­sia, Putin’s “lit­tle green men” be­gan to ap­pear openly in Crimea, while Rus­sian Buk anti-air­craft mis­siles and Rus­sian bat­tal­ion battle groups ap­peared in Ukraine’s eastern Don­bas re­gion not long af­ter. In an­nex­ing Crimea and stok­ing sep­a­ratist vi­o­lence in Don­bas, the Krem­lin’s aim has clearly been to desta­bilise Ukraine in or­der to bring it un­der Rus­sia’s thumb. In­deed, the very no­tion of an in­de­pen­dent Ukrainian state is openly ques­tioned by Rus­sia’s lead­ers, Putin in­cluded.

In Riga, the EU’s lead­ers will reaf­firm the so-called deep and com­pre­hen­sive free-trade agree­ments con­cluded with Ukraine, Moldova, and Ge­or­gia. The most im­por­tant sig­nal will be the EU’s pledge that th­ese agree­ments will take ef­fect. De­spite mas­sive pro­pa­ganda, in­tense eco­nomic pres­sure, and overt mil­i­tary ag­gres­sion, the EU can and will stay the course in its Eastern Part­ner­ship and its of­fers to its neigh­bours.

Clearly, no one in Europe should un­der­es­ti­mate the chal­lenges ahead. When I left the Vil­nius meet­ing in 2013, I could cer­tainly see storm clouds gath­er­ing, but I did not know that Putin was pre­pared to un­leash so much ag­gres­sion and tur­moil. Now, we in Europe have ev­ery rea­son to pre­pare for the long-term ef­fort needed to help our neigh­bours along their cho­sen paths.

But this will re­quire a greater Euro­pean com­mit­ment, both po­lit­i­cally and eco­nom­i­cally, than we have seen thus far. Ukraine has been mis­gov­erned for decades, and it will have to pass through a val­ley of re­form-in­duced tears be­fore it starts to reap the benefits of as­so­ci­a­tion and in­te­gra­tion with the EU.

Un­for­tu­nately, it is far eas­ier for Rus­sia to fuel short-term volatil­ity than it is for Europe to help build long-term sta­bil­ity. But to al­low the Krem­lin and its prox­ies to suc­ceed would not only un­der­mine the Eastern Part­ner­ship coun­tries; it might jeop­ar­dise peace in Europe it­self.

Af­ter all, the ap­petite grows with eat­ing, which might well ap­ply to the Krem­lin’s “wider Rus­sia” strat­egy. At some point, the risk of an open con­fronta­tion be­tween NATO and Rus­sia could grow. Even China, as it poses as Rus­sia’s friend and pa­tron, should con­sider the con­se­quences for it­self of such a risk.

Such a clash must be pre­vented. By con­firm­ing the Eastern Part­ner­ship agree­ments, the EU’s lead­ers will demon­strate that they are not pre­pared to ac­qui­esce in a new Yalta-style di­vi­sion of the con­ti­nent that would de­prive th­ese coun­tries of their right to choose their own des­tiny.

The Riga meet­ing is un­likely to pro­duce any head­line-grab­bing new ini­tia­tives. But none is needed. With ev­ery­thing from mas­sive dis­in­for­ma­tion to tanks and sol­diers thrown against the Eastern Part­ner­ship since 2013, just stay­ing the course is a pow­er­ful sign of suc­cess. And, in the in­ter­est of longterm sta­bil­ity across Europe, that should be wel­comed – even in Putin’s na­tion­al­is­ti­cally aroused Rus­sia.

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