Invited by the EU Commission to attend the celebration of the tenth anniversary of the Eastern Partnership between the EU and six countries (Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan) I could see all the strength and weaknesses of the EU. The EU has invited all these countries 10 years ago to come closer to the EU in a negotiated framework. The EU did not promise future membership. But they wanted these countries to accept principle political and economic rules in exchange for economic benefits. These countries should liberalize their political systems in the direction of accepting and promoting fundamental rights and freedoms. But the EU insisted also on the liberalization of trade and on mutual opening of the markets. Financial support for the reform processes would be the contribution of the EU.

Eastern Partnership a success?

It is difficult to decide if the Eastern Partnership project was a success. In a publication distributed at the meeting in Brussels – a special edition of „New Eastern Europe“ – James Nixey is of the opinion: „If the EU is honest, there is little reason for it to celebrate on this 10th anniversary of its magnificent envisioned Eastern Partnership. …..In choosing between values and interests, the EU often chooses unwisely. As such fear of the Russian response has entered into the EU calculus.“ And Iris Kempe defines one of the main issues clearly:“ The overall goal for Europe’s relations with Russia is to manage risk with a neighbor that is both a security threat and a potential partner.“

In the debates between high ranking politicians of the partnership countries, the EU and its member countries, but also with representatives of the civil society the question was raised, if the EU and the Partnership (EPA) have been successful. Well 10 years is not a long period – historically. But certainly, many expectations have not been met. Even the strongest instruments of Association Agreements in combination with Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreements had limited effects. And in some countries especially Belarus and Armenia but also Azerbaijan the EU could not develop and use all its instruments to strengthen the ties with them.

Concerning Belarus and Armenia the EU had and has to respect the special and delicate relations of these countries with Russia. On the other hand, it is a success that in spite of strong Russian influence and even pressure the relations with the EU could be extended and enhanced. And that is even more surprising in the case of Moldova, where also the separate region of Transnistria can participate in the Free Trade arrangement.


Values and Geopolitics

On the other hand, Ukraine and several of the EU member countries especially Poland are interested in using the Eastern Partnership as an organization and instrument against Russia. In the debate in Brussel the Polish foreign minister asked for a stronger organizational structure of the partnership. And he suggested a common political line against Russia, while he had to recognize that individual sensitivities have to be taken into account. He did not explain how this could be done in the framework of an anti-Russia strategy. So, for the present Polish government the Eastern Partnership should be an geopolitical instrument. But even they would have to accept, that concerning their main interest, there is no unanimous position in the Partnership countries and in the EU itself.

There were also differences between the High Representative, Federica Mogherini and the Lithuanian foreign minister. Mogherini said, the Eastern Partnership is no geopolitical instrument. She meant it is no instrument against Russia. The Lithuanian foreign minister, whom I know very well since many years, contradicted Mogherini and underlined the geopolitical character of the EPA. For him The Eastern Partnership is an instrument against what he calls the Russian aggression towards his neighbors.

The Swedish foreign minister who represented the other EU member country which promoted the Eastern Partnership 10 years ago, on the other hand underlined the necessity to promote fundamental rights in the partnership countries. For her, the promotion of liberal values had the highest priority. She asked in particular a clear and strong strategy for reaching equal rights for women and men. And also, the representatives of the civil society in the partnership countries asked for promotion of these rights, for example a legislation against domestic violence in Belarus, where such a legislation is still not existing.

So we do not only find different specific aims and targets with the EU member countries, but there are different principle approaches. The one is geopolitical, neglecting the differences inside the EU and the other is underlining the transformative power – again neglecting the newly arisen differences inside the EU. But the idea of promoting the transformation towards a liberal political and economic system is still the official policy of the EU in many respects. The Eastern Partnership is only one example.

Today the promotion of liberal values and economic systems is confronted with a Russia that is not inclined to accept such a transformation. They do not reject it only for themselves, but Russia is critical to negative towards such a strategy in their neighborhood. One consequence is the aggressive policy towards some countries in the EU neighborhood, as Tim Marshall notices:“ The annexation if the Crimea showed how Russia is prepared for military action to defend what it sees as its interests in what it calls its „near abroad“. It took a rational gamble that outside powers would not intervene, and Crimea was ‚doable‘.“  

The EU as soft, transformative power could not act clearly against a traditional geopolitical power like Russia. But besides EU internal differences not all the partnership countries could agree on a strategy versus or with Russia. An anti-Russia policy would even push some of them away from strong relationship with the EU. Another failure in the Eastern Partnership and Neighborhood strategy is the non-solution of the different conflicts. Again, Russia who could contribute to solving these conflicts has no interest. Of course, Armenia and Azerbaijan could solve their bilateral conflict alone. But even here there was no readiness to come to a compromise – at least until now.

We have before us a principe conflict between two different approaches. On the one hand we have the soft and post-national policies of the EU which try to perform a peaceful transformation in its neighborhood and lead countries into the liberal capitalist world. On the other hand, we find orthodox nationalistic power politics which are trying to keep its neighborhood dependent on the Centre – Moscow. At least in the short term the authoritarian and military supported policies seem to prevail over the „naive“ value oriented policies. But it has also its limits, as we can see in the interests of the Eastern Partnership countries to have stronger ties with the EU irrespective of Russian influences.

The New Geopolitics of Eurasia 

A few days after the conference in Brussels, the IIP together with other institutes organized round tables and a public discussion on „Contested Sovereignties, Contested Global Orders? Understanding the New Geopolitics of Eurasia“. One of the starting points of the discussions was the famous dictum by one of the founders of the geopolitical scientist Sir Halford Mackinder: „Who rules Eastern Europe commands the Heartland, Who rules the Heartland commands the World Island, Who rules the World Island commands the World.“ For Mackinder the geography – in its wider sense – determines politics.

We can also use the general definition of Tim Marshall: „Broadly speaking, geopolitics looks at the ways in which international affairs can be understood through geographical factors; not just the physical landscape – the natural barriers of mountains or connections of river networks, for example – but also climate, demographics, cultural regions and access to natural resources.“

But things are much more complex nowadays. For Adrian Hyde-Price – one of the speakers at the events in Vienna – there are two main factors which both (!) influence and even determine politics and political developments.“ Contemporary international society is being shaped by both forces of globalization and geopolitics. They have different logics and are driven by different forces, but do not exist in a zero-sum relationship.“ And globalization does not only comprise economic relations, but also many new technologies, new forms and channels of information, global liberal values etc.

Correctly Adrian Hyde-Price underlines that Russia has been much less affected by the different forms of globalization. It has followed different paths of developments and tries to establish itself as a global power. And the authoritarian form of government and some of its geo-political ideologues are supporting President Putin on his endeavors. Adrian Hyde-Price correctly analysis this: „The Ukraine crisis can therefore be seen – not simply as an outcome of the shifting balance of power – but as the product of a more deep-seated clash between the twin pressures of globalization and geopolitics that are reshaping Europe’s security order in the twenty-first century.“

And the people?

The different affection by globalization in its wider sense limits the possibility to implement the transformative power and aims of the European Union especially in the EU’s neighborhood or the „near abroad‘ as it is called in Russia. But this limitation depends also on the attitude of the different groups of population in these countries. Rightfully, another speaker in Vienna, John O’Loughlin differentiates between “ ‚high geopolitics‘ (elite theories, codes and policies) and ‚low geopolitics‘ (the world as envisioned by ordinary people and shaped by both elite discourse, popular cultural expressions and media images)”.

But we still have to define who is belonging to the elite and who to the lower classes. This is not so easy, especially when we think about different NGOs. This became clear at the meeting in Brussels, when the NGO spokespersons of the Eastern Partnership countries were representing the people. But in their question about civil liberties and domestic violence they were raising issues of special concerns to the „elite“.

One must also add the attitudes of the different elites lower strata of the societies in the EU member countries. Also, here the „people“ have an influence on political decisions. And in addition, also Russia is targeting different groups with their information/propaganda. One of the problems is the imbalance of information distribution. Russia is much more controlling information and by that influencing their citizens than EU countries. They do not have that possibilities and do not engage as much in spreading fake news.

You may say, that the existence of different opinions, some of them supporting the Russian cause, is a weakness of the European Union. But limiting the information coming from Russian media – like it is done in Ukraine – is certainly not a useful policy and cannot be combined with democracy. We have to accept some sacrifices and defend civil liberties.

Soft policies and defence

An issue which was raised in the evening discussion closing our Geopolitics event was the possibility to overcome EU’s weakness by strengthening the military dimension. It could be done either by enhancing the links between NATO and the EU or by building up a strong military capability of the EU. But also, the question of neutrality was brought into the debate – especially for the countries of the Eastern Partnership.

Could a concept of neutrality for these countries be the basis for a new understanding between the EU (and the US) and Russia? But what about the right of these countries to choose their own path towards security? How could NATO which is interested in expansion cope with the neutrality – in some cases against the majority will of at least the elite – of these countries? What kind of security guarantees could be given to these countries, which have one big neighbor, who is for the moment at least violating international law in relation to some of its neighbors (Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova)? It would be very helpful if all these issues could be discussed in a rational and forward looking way.

For the moment there is unfortunately no willingness of either side to start and promote such a serious debate. The danger is rather a new armaments race and not a race towards strengthening security. And that could endanger peace in Europe and destroy the even limited success of the Eastern Partnership. Of course, one should not be naive and forget to be prepared for any aggression against European countries. But Europe needs a comprehensive defense policy and structure. It needs not to build up a military capacity as such. EU countries should not bow to the pressure of the US.

Europe should first have a clearly defensive military doctrine before entering any discussion of a military dimension of the European Union. As we see with the US, they have a strong military capacity and that invites to use it in different wars. And we must recognize that the US lost all these wars in the last years – form Vietnam to Iraq. Not a good example for Europe.