Two steps backwards, one step forwards at Riga. It is entirely understandable that David Cameron’s attendance at the European Union’s Eastern Partnership summit in Riga today has been presented to the UK audience almost exclusively through a British lens.
As the first full-dress European summit since the election two weeks ago, the occasion marks the Prime Minister’s international debut as head of an elected Conservative government and offers a natural opportunity for him to judge the EU political climate before the discussions that will precede the now inevitable “in-out” referendum.
While the new uncertainty about the UK’s place in the EU is bound to lurk in the background, however, it is not at all what the gathering in Riga is about. This is a summit of the EU’s Eastern Partnership, whose six members are essentially the border states with Russia: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, the Republic of Moldova and Ukraine. The talks – formal and informal – will cover two separate but related issues: the mess in Ukraine and the six-year-old partnership’s future.
It will not be a particularly happy gathering. Together, those two subjects constitute one of the biggest internal and foreign policy failures, if not the biggest policy failure, of the European Union since the Maastricht Treaty gave it its present shape more than 20 years ago. You have only to compare the expectations before the last Eastern Partnership summit 18 months ago, in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, to gauge the damage.
Until a very late stage, the months and weeks before the Vilnius summit passed in a haze of euphoric confidence, generated by a sub-group of EU states, about the Western-orientated future chosen by Ukraine. President Viktor Yanukovych was expected to go to Vilnius and sign up to an “association agreement” with the EU that would, or at least could, presage his country’s “European perspective”. There would be applause, champagne, fine speeches, and then Ukraine’s post-Soviet future would really be able to begin.
What happened could hardly have been more different. A hang-dog Yanukovych turned up at Vilnius, but did not sign. There was outcry, and a forest of European flags, on the streets of Kiev. Within weeks of his return, Yanukovych had been deposed; Russia seized Crimea; there was bloodshed in Kiev. And within months there was fighting akin to civil war in the east of Ukraine, with the anti-Kiev rebels calling in help from Moscow.
Whether you interpret these events (as the Western consensus largely does) as a spontaneous popular revolution in Kiev to which Russia responded with military aggression, or whether you see it (as Russia largely does) as a Western-backed coup in Kiev to which Moscow could not but respond in defence of its national security, hardly matters for practical purposes right now (though it clearly matters for history).
More than 4,000 people dead, an estimated one million displaced, a simmering civil war in a part of Europe, and the complete breakdown of relations with Russia, cannot possibly have been what EU policy intended when it instituted the Eastern Partnership in 2009. None of it is in the EU’s interests. Yet that is where we are now. To describe it as a policy failure is an understatement.
The EU has made efforts in recent months to salvage something from the wreckage. An “association agreement” has been signed with the new government in Kiev and huge amounts of administrative and financial help have been shovelled in – though to what effect is not yet clear. Implementation of part of the free-trade arrangements has been postponed for a year (possibly longer), in a move that manages at once to help both Kiev and Moscow.
Plus, there may be some who argue that an economically weakened Russia – because of lower international oil prices and the effects of Western sanctions – might make Moscow a little easier for the EU to live with. It beggars belief, however, that this was in anyone’s mind when the Eastern Partnership was devised. The intention was rather to foster an arrangement that would stabilise the EU-Russia borderlands after the 2005 EU expansion had effectively pushed the East-West border east.
Beyond this, however, there was serious disagreement in the EU about what the Eastern Partnership was supposed to achieve. There were those who regarded it as a sort of waiting room for eventual – or even accelerated – EU membership. And there were those who saw it as almost the exact opposite: “association” in their view was a substitute for membership and the twain would never meet.
The dividing line ran roughly, but not exactly, between “old” Europe and “new”. When it came to the objectives of the Vilnius summit, however, they were – of necessity – all in it together.
To judge by the approach of the three Baltic States and Poland, who were among Ukraine’s most enthusiastic advocates, the mood of this week’s Riga meeting will be sadder and wiser. EU membership for Eastern “partners” is not on the cards; full stop. Nor, even, is the consolation prize of a relaxed visa regime that Georgia and Ukraine have long angled for. The run-up to Riga has been marked by a welcome new realism which accepts that, while the Eastern Partnership will continue as a pleasing name, for most practical purposes it hardly exists. Each of the former Soviet countries will now be treated individually.
Everyone will be too polite to say so, but “old Europe” has prevailed, and the proselytising zeal of “new” Europe has been stilled. If there is disagreement, it will be about Russia, and how soon, if at all, to try to mend fences; where, if anywhere, can compromises be made. John Kerry’s recent meeting with President Putin in Sochi showed the ice starting to crack just a little, and Brussels would do well to take note.
At the Riga summit today it may just be possible to imagine that its ill-fated Vilnius predecessor had never been, so fundamentally have expectations and ambitions changed. Regrettably, the blood still being shed in eastern Ukraine tells another story – one of misjudgement and over-reach, and not only on the part of Russia.