EU summit fails to keep its eastern promise

Transcript of Question and Answer video with Professor Stefan Hedlund on the outcome of the Eastern Partnership Summit in Riga, Latvia, on May 21 and 22, 2015.

The Eastern Partnership Summit in Riga, Latvia, failed to give Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia the reassurance that they would come into the fold of the European Union. Why was this?

Professor Hedlund:

Well, I think the reasons are fairly obvious. To begin with the Eastern Partnership was never really intended to offer membership to the European Union. It was always a substitute for that and the official jargon has been a membership perspective. And even that proved to be too much for Russia to stomach. The notion of Ukraine being even closer associated with the European Union was felt that that was very threatening by the Kremlin.

To that we may add that the European Union, on its side, has been very badly burnt over the past year both by the outcome of the Arab Spring and the refugee crisis in the south and by the increasingly hostile relations between the West and Russia.

So coming into the Summit meeting in Riga, although some of the candidate countries like Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova hoped that they would have at least a road map for membership in the European Union, that was not really on the cards. The European Union is now backtracking trying to get out of this mess and trying to mend fences with Russia rather than provoke more conflict.

What future do you see for the three former soviet states Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine in their relationship with the EU?

Professor Hedlund:

Well, the main victim obviously is Ukraine.

When Ukraine was forced, following the Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius (in 2013), to make a choice between closer association with the European Union or with Russia, the country basically split up into two camps and the pro European camp that forced the former government firstly to collapse and then forced the new government to make a deal with the European Union.

That camp has pushed Ukraine into a conflict with Russia where the European Union really cannot help very much. It is in a game of slow attrition with a low intensity war in the eastern parts of the country that is making any ambition to stabilise the economy simply a pipe dream.

So unless, in some way, there is a settlement with Russia that creates a stable future then Ukraine is being pushed into sovereign default. And with the new rebellion in Kiev, we may even see a failed state in Ukraine. And so that is the really tragic experience.

The other two hopeful candidates coming to Riga, Georgia and Moldova, both are in conflict with Russia over areas which are de facto Russian protectorates within their sovereign territory - Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia and Transnistria in Moldova - and the European Union obviously no longer has any stomach to seek an effective resolution of those crises.

Georgia will be facing even harder pressure from Russia, and Moldova will also probably be forced to reorient closer to Russia than towards the European Union. So the Summit in Riga was a real game changer.

The Summit also highlighted a new split in Europe's eastern partners - between Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine on the one hand, and Azerbaijan, Armenia and Belarus on the other. How do you see that division panning out?

Professor Hedlund:

Well, it really is a very major division.

Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine came to Riga hoping to gain membership and were sadly disappointed. The other three have already re-orientated away from Europe. And the only real winner coming out of this is Belarus. With the Minsk accord on ceasefire in Ukraine, Belarus has emerged centre stage and Mr Lukashenko, President Lukashenko, who a year ago was known as the last dictator in Europe, has now - sort of - become a poster boy of sorts and he is now courting the European Union for closer relations. And he has been courted by the Chinese with major investment in infrastructure in the country so he is probably feeling pretty happy.

Azerbaijan on its side has grown very tired of lecturing about human rights in its country and knows fine well that Europeans will want its energy anyway and so it can afford to disregard any ambition by the European Union to influence its domestic politics.

So that sort of leaves Armenia which is the only real friend that Russia has because Russia protects Armenia against possible war with Azerbaijan over the frozen conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. And the Russian army maintains a substantial garrison inside Armenia so the belief that Armenia would orient closer to the European Union and to the Eastern Partnership was never really going to happen.

Armenia has said thanks, but no thanks, and is now a member of the Russian-led customs union destined to be in the Eurasian Union. So it is inside the Russian tent and it relies now on Russia for protection. And the European Union is going to maintain rhetoric of good relations with all of these countries.

But it is very hollow and some of those that went further south on a limb have now been hung out to dry and this is going to come back and haunt the European Union foreign policy making in years to come.

(Photo credit: dpa)