Time for an EU diplomatic renaissance in the East

, by Agnieszka Widlaszewska

All the versions of this article: [English] [italiano]

Time for an EU diplomatic renaissance in the East
EU High Representative Josep Borrell.
Source: European Parliament / Pietro Naj-Oleari (CC-BY-4.0).

The European Union’s (EU) Eastern neighbourhood continues to prove that it is hardly the prosperous and peaceful ‘ring of friends’ the European Commission hoped for when it established its European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) in 2003. One country after another is being shaken by wars or major protests against authoritarianism, corruption and election-rigging, to name a few.

Following its outburst of support for post-2013 Ukraine, the EU has been much less involved in recent developments, notably in Belarus, Nagorno-Karabakh and Russia. What stands out is the EU’s lack of meaningful dialogue with the latter, despite it being the key actor in the region. If the Union wants to contribute towards maintaining peace in its neighbourhood, it needs to assume its position through reinvigorated diplomatic efforts armed with solid leverage, including in security sphere.

From euphoria to radio silence

The Ukraine crisis marked the high point of EU involvement beyond its Eastern border. Financial support amounting to several billion euros flowed to the new government, and the country welcomed one top-level EU official after another. Despite all these efforts, seven years later Ukraine is nowhere near becoming a fully democratic country, free from oligarchs’ control and large-scale, high-level corruption. The lack of success on this front seems to have made the EU more reserved regarding other developments in the region.

In Belarus, the Union has hardly gone out of its way to react to months of protests. After voicing strong support for the protesters and their exiled leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the Union adopted (not without major internal hurdles) a series of sanctions with questionable potential effects. In addition, the Commission announced a support package amounting to 53 million euros – a figure which looks quite pale next to the billions poured into Ukraine. None of these measures have so far helped put an end to the political stalemate in Belarus.

Contrary to this still relatively active response, the EU’s reaction to the war in Nagorno-Karabakh was a political radio silence. The topic was almost absent from EU-level discussions, and the statements published, notably by the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (HRVP) Josep Borrell, repeated the Commission’s standard phrases.

Apart from providing humanitarian aid, the EU did not try to directly engage in the resolution of the conflict. Instead, it fervently insisted on the OSCE Minsk Group being the driver of any negotiations, despite the HRVP himself admitting that the Group had not achieved much progress over the past 30 years. In the end, it seemed that the US and France, co-chairing the Minsk Group, were at best kept in the loop by the third co-chair - Russia, which actually negotiated the 9 November ceasefire agreement.

A similar lack of meaningful engagement can be observed regarding the poisoning of Alexei Navalny and the recent wave of protests following his arrest in Russia. While the EU has been very vocal in its condemnation of Navalny’s arrest and thousands of detentions during the protests, no action seems to be following from this outcry. Borrell will go to Moscow for the first time in early February, but will he have anything to say?

No diplomacy without talking

The aforementioned cases differ significantly, but they have two things in common. Firstly, Russia’s key role in all of them. Secondly, the EU’s fading influence, caused by a weak diplomatic game and a lack of dialogue with Russia. If the Union wants to (re)gain a strong position in the region, it should employ more of what could be called ‘hard diplomacy’ – that is, consistent high-level diplomatic engagement with Russia and Eastern Partnership (EaP) countries, backed with solid leverage.

When the war in Donbass began, the EU scaled back its official contacts with Russia, with the last EU-Russia summit taking place in 2014, and the last high-level visit to Moscow being that of former HRVP Federica Mogherini in April 2017. However, although such diplomatic ostracism might make for a good public statement, it does not bring any practical benefits. It simply means that the two sides stop talking altogether, which precludes finding diplomatic solutions. The best thing the EU can do is to persist in trying to engage.

Morevoer, Borrell is the third consecutive HRVP with no substantial prior experience with Russia or Eastern European politics in general. Hopefully the time will finally come for someone with more interest and experience in the region. Someone from Scandinavia, perhaps, or a Central European with moderate attitude towards Russia (if one can be found).

It is nonetheless a welcome step that Borrell will meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Moscow. In fact, this author believes the visit to be long overdue. Although prioritising countries with which the Union and its members have had turbulent relationships will always be considered controversial, it might pay off during future confrontations, which will likely arise. Establishing personal contacts, particularly in a strongly hierarchical country like Russia, is crucial.

Direct contacts should also be established with other leaders in the region, including Lukashenko. Whether the EU likes it or not, he is clearly not willing to give in to the protesters’ demands. Unless his security apparatus suddenly turns on him, the only solution is to somehow induce him to reconsider his position. Any substantial moves are unlikely to happen without Russia’s input, so a three-way diplomatic engagement is needed if the EU wants to be part of the solution.

Lack of consistent dialogue with Russia, and hiding behind the smokescreen of the OSCE Minsk Group, is also what contributed towards the EU being sidelined during the Nagorno-Karabakh war. In December, Borrell complained about Russia and Turkey teaming up to try to settle regional conflicts, a process the HRVP called “Astanisation” (referring to the Astana format on Syria). According to Borrell this “leads to the exclusion of Europe” from conflict resolution. However, this sounds not so much as a cause of Europe’s exclusion but rather an effect of other factors which enable Russia and Turkey to get more successfully involved. The question is – which factors?

Put your arguments where your mouth is

The crucial aspect is leverage. Trade deals and support for democratic reforms are not always enough. One of the main concerns of all EaP countries is their security, and the EU needs to include this domain in its toolbox. It also needs to give its representatives a clear mandate to use such toolbox.

This does not necessarily mean employing military arguments. With regards to Belarus, the EU could play on Lukashenko’s fear of Belarus being effectively absorbed by Russia. It could also develop a comprehensive offer for Belarus’ civil society and youth (visa-free regime, educational support, substantial financial support), and vow to use it if the protesters’ demands are not fulfilled. When confronting Russia, economic leverage, such as the ever controversial Nord Stream 2, could be a strong argument.

As regards countries with which the EU has a more cooperative relationship, the Union could offer them wide-ranging support in developing their military and defence capabilities. This might go against the EU’s soft power image, but the Union’s new drive towards achieving strategic autonomy requires such tools to be put on the table.

Such shift would undoubtedly incite Russia’s resistance, but this is where close diplomatic engagement comes into play. The EU’s goal should be to ensure peace and stability by convincing Russia that it is in neither of the sides’ interest to persist in a state of constant crisis in the neighbourhood. For Russia such scenario would imply costly multi-directional operations and potential domestic resistance (an argument which might hit home especially now). For the EU it would result in a persistent risk to its own security and a failure of its neighbourhood policy. With the right, credible arguments at hand, the EU would be in a position to negotiate maintaining balance. Without them, the region will likely remain in limbo.

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