Taking Stock and Looking Ahead: The European Union’s Approach to Conflict Management in the Eastern Partnership

The EU recently marked the 10th anniversary of its Eastern Partnership, a cooperation framework directed at Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, countries critical to European security but not facing the immediate and sometimes not even distant prospect of EU membership.

Since the inception of the Eastern Partnership (EaP) a decade ago, the EU’s approach to designing and implementing its policy has always been at least in part modular and bilateral. This has been as much a necessity as it has been a choice, and arguably pre-dates the EaP as evidenced by the Partnership and Cooperation Agreements of the late 1990s, the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) Action Plans of the 2000s, and the Association Agreements of the 2010s. Even the EaP itself is the result of differentiation within the ENP which, in turn, is perhaps best seen as a regional version of the EU's general foreign and security policy.

The modular approach, however, has not just been about differentiation between countries. The EU has always made a fundamental commitment to upholding general principles of international law, such as sovereignty, territorial integrity, non-use of violence and peaceful dispute settlement, but implemented them on a case-by-case basis with due regard to contextual differences. As a consequence, giving meaning to these general principles has differed across time and place, depending on domestic politics in the partner countries, the relationship between domestic players and the EU, interest structures within the EU (both in its institutions and among member states), and the broader geopolitical and geo-economic setting in which the EU interacts with, among others, the US, Russia, China, NATO, the Organization for Security Co-operation in Europe and the UN.

A modular approach enables a necessary degree of flexibility and agility, but it still requires an overall strategic vision of the EU's role in the eastern neighbourhood vis-à-vis partner countries, its allies, Russia, China, and a range of regional and international organisations that shape what is an increasingly crowded space of actors with only partially complementary interests and vastly different capabilities.

Whatever strategic vision, if any, the EU has been able to muster often reflects just a minimum consensus among EU member states, has significantly different expectations attached to it, and is frequently translated into incoherent and poorly implemented ‘country strategies’ (which more often than not are hardly more than annual or multi-annual programmes of project funding for individual countries).

This minimum consensus, however, has, so far, extended to upholding the general principles of the rules-based international order to which the EU is committed, but its implementation has varied. No sanctions were imposed on Russia after the 2008 war in Georgia and Moscow’s subsequent recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the two regions on Georgian territory which Russia encouraged and supported. By contrast, extensive and gradually broadening sanctions against Russia followed the annexation of Crimea in 2014, and the war in the Donbass which continues to this day.

At the same time, the normative consensus within the EU, and its differentiated implementation, has also created spaces for cooperation with Russia. Russian and EU interests are relatively more aligned in the case of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and this has been one of the factors that has facilitated a highly differentiated approach in the case of the EU's relationship with Armenia. In the case of Moldova, the EU and Russia have both repeatedly expressed their commitment to the country's territorial integrity, and their occasional more tangible convergence of interests has made it possible that, since 2016, the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area – an agreement between the EU and Moldova – also covers Transnistria, a Russia-supported de facto state within Moldova’s territory. Similarly, the EU and Russia have also cooperated in the recent formation of an anti-oligarchic government coalition in Chisinau.

These predominantly tactical successes notwithstanding, the EU, on its own or in conjunction with its local and international partners, has not managed any fundamental breakthrough towards the settlement of any of the protracted conflicts in the eastern neighbourhood. The EU has played a central role in stabilisation and humanitarian relief – areas in which it has requisite capabilities and experiences – but has often been relegated to the sidelines in conflict settlement efforts.

Stabilisation policies – which often mean just freezing dangerous situations in the hope of preventing further deterioration and bloodshed – have had some success, but also pose a serious dilemma for the EU in that they tend to reduce the perceived urgency of actual conflict settlement and potentially entrench an ever-more expensive status quo which may or may not be sustainable, and where there is no clear long-term strategic vision on what might be feasible and viable ‘replacement’ policies.

Given the mixed record of the EaP and the uncertainties about the region’s future, the question arises of whether there are any credible alternatives to the current EU approach. There are none, and the real challenge might well be to sustain the current approach.

For this to be possible, the intra-EU consensus, especially on upholding the general principles of a rules-based international order, needs to be strengthened, and the EU needs to set – and then manage – realistic expectations for itself and the partner countries about what is feasible, when, and under what conditions in relation to conflict settlement. The case for differentiation between individual countries under the EaP needs to be made on the basis of country- and conflict-specific strategies, including realistic goals, timelines and resource commitments.

Above all, EU institutions and member states need to be conscious of the shifting geopolitical and geo-economic situation, especially the growing role of China across the eastern neighbourhood. This is particularly evident in the context of China’s One Belt, One Road initiative. This will continue to have significant economic and security impacts on the partner countries there, including high levels of debt to China, on their relationships with each other, with the EU and with Russia, as well as on the broader relationship between Russia and the EU.

Put differently, for the EaP to remain relevant, it needs to be underpinned, to a greater extent than currently exists, by a longer-term strategic outlook on Europe as a whole.

Stefan Wolff is Professor of International Security at the University of Birmingham and an Associate Fellow at RUSI. A political scientist by background, he specialises in the management of contemporary security challenges, especially in the prevention and settlement of ethnic conflicts.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.


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