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Eastern Partnership Summit in Riga: No bark or bite by EU leaders

05/26/2015 02:08 pm ET | Updated May 22, 2016

The Eastern Partnership summit in Riga has been tagged by the hosting Latvian minister of foreign affairs a "survival summit". This implied that EU leaders might propose decisive actions to intensify relations with the Eastern Partnership countries in light of the Ukraine crisis. But to the disappointment of some of the Eastern European and South Caucasus countries, this did not happen.

From its outset, the Riga summit was not staged to promote fundamental changes in the EU's relations with its Eastern neighbours or reignite confrontations between the EU and Russia. On the eve of the last summit in Vilnius in November 2013, in contrast, Angela Merkel had used surprisingly clear words in declaring Russia had no right to consider all of Eastern Europe its privileged sphere of influence - statements that likely egged geostrategic hardliners in the Kremlin. One and a half years later and following a devastating war in Ukraine, Merkel used a calmer rhetoric before the Riga summit, stating that the Eastern Partnership is not an expansionist EU policy and is not aimed against Russia. While she emphasized that the Eastern European neighbours are sovereign states that have the right to choose their geopolitical orientation, she rejected, to the disappointment of the governments in Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova, the idea that the Eastern Partnership is a policy to prepare the Eastern European countries for EU accession.

Two big reasons why European politicians, including Merkel, were not willing to bring new momentum to the Eastern Partnership agenda: fears that a more pro-active policy would fuel an even hotter geopolitical conflagration between Russia and the West and particularly in Eastern Ukraine, and disappointment among some EU officials over the slow pace of reforms in the main partner countries since November 2013.

With the humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean and Greece's potential exit from the Eurozone looming in the background, the reduced fighting in Eastern Ukraine over the past few weeks comes somewhat as a relief to EU heads of government. EU politicians still hope that the Minsk II agreement will eventually be implemented and that a formula will be found that will lead to the "re-integration" of Donetsk and Luhansk into Ukraine. Such a solution, if still possible at all, would only work if the Kremlin stops encouraging and supporting secessionists' aspirations for independence. For this scenario to work, diplomatic dialogue between the EU and Russia will be essential. Although Russia will not be invited to the G7 summit in June and EU-Russia relations are likely to remain cold in the coming years, EU governments are aware that dialogue with Moscow has to be resumed at some point, not least to mitigate tensions in Ukraine. In this context, renewed discussions on the geopolitical orientation of the EU's partner countries in the Eastern Partnership were deemed ill-timed before the Riga summit. As a result, the Ukrainian government's request to provide a roadmap for its EU accession remained unfulfilled by the EU. Probably for good reason, EU policy-makers feared that any reference to a membership prospect would have prodded hardliners in the Kremlin for further escalation in Eastern Ukraine.

The pace of reforms in Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova, countries whose current governments signed association agreements to strengthen their relations with the EU, has been decidedly slow - a convenient reality for EU policy-makers looking for reasons not to increase momentum in the Eastern Partnership. For the past year, Ukraine has been pre-occupied with the fighting in Eastern Ukraine and, to some extent understandably so, hardly focused on implementing a comprehensive reform agenda including measures to root out endemic corruption or reforms of the courts and the prosecutor's offices. In Moldova, the EU-oriented parties in government since 2009 have not succeeded in establishing an independent judiciary and effective anti-corruption institutions, and in reducing the concentration of mass media ownership from the hands of a few oligarchs. The governing parties secured only a slight victory in a controversial parliamentary election in November 2014 in which one of the opposition parties was excluded from the election just two days prior to election day. The new government is currently trying to disentangle itself from the disappearance of huge amounts of money from the biggest national banks. Most progress has been seen in Georgia.

The lack of significant reform progress in these three EaP countries has hardly convinced EU policy-makers to bring the prospect of EU membership into discussion before the Riga summit. Politicians in the EU and in the EaP countries are thus going around in circles: Western European officials will not offer a membership prospect if they do not see commitment to democratic reforms over an extended period; politicians in the Eastern Partnership countries are apparently not willing to start a comprehensive and politically costly reform agenda without reassurance from European officials that their efforts will one day pay off in full EU membership.

To be fair, the EU has introduced some changes to the Eastern Partnership's approach. The partner countries have now been differentiated into two groups with Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova in the first group. These three are likely to get better access to EU funds and Ukrainian and Georgian citizens might be granted visa-free travel to the Schengen Area in the coming years that Moldovan citizens already enjoy. In contrast, EU relations with the second group - consisting of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Belarus whose governments have only limited interest in strengthening relations with Brussels -- are unlikely to significantly intensify in the near future. This differentiation follows developments of the past years and will lead to a more individualized approach to the partner countries. But obviously, the EU is proceeding more cautiously in promoting the Eastern Partnership agenda than it had in 2013, as evidenced by its actions these past days in Riga.