The Guest Blog

Beyond the successful efforts in multilateral projects of economic nature, the Eastern Partnership should also involve its partners in strengthening democratic institutions and civil society, argues René van der Linden.

René van der Linden is the former president of the Dutch Senat and honorary president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE).

The Brussels Eastern Partnership Summit is approaching. How would you prefer to see it? What are your perceptions of problems and perspectives?

First and foremost, the Summit should be non-confrontational. It is extremely necessary that the final document avoids developing an EaP image directed against third countries. It is equally important for the EU to foster non-confrontation within the EaP as well. The EaP geography is not homogenous; there are persisting conflicts which seriously challenge stability and security inside the EaP.

But conflicts in the territories of EaP countries already hint too much the existence of confrontation…

The EU did not initiate these conflicts; consequently, the EaP is not a platform to settle these conflicts. The EU should contribute to solving conflicts. Reconciliation instead of confrontation. However, it needs to reconfirm the EU’s support of territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence of all EaP countries.

The Summit should demonstrate that Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine are parts of a big European family. The Summit should concentrate on multilateral projects and initiatives which combine even if I may say so unite us. I mean real projects. There is a lot of room to cooperate on energy, transport, education, culture, trade and countering common challenges – such as terrorism and illegal migration.

Are there such multilateral projects that may be inscribed in records of EaP?

Southern Gas Corridor… Not simply due to the fact that it will bring alternative volumes from East to Europe through alternative routes. It is politically and economically “uniting project”. It involves 2 EU member countries (Italy and Greece), 2 candidate countries (Albania and Turkey), associated partner (Georgia) and Azerbaijan – a strategic partner of the EU in the field of energy.

It is politically significant and commercially viable project not only for those involved in the project but also for all the EU and EaP countries. The Southern Gas Corridor has already created thousands of jobs. It will come up with more deliverables for the EU and EaP citizens once the project becomes fully operational by 2020.

Let’s take transport and connectivity. What else could be more topical for all participants of the EU and Eastern Partners rather than cooperating in bringing European and Asian markets closer? EU believes that “One road, One belt” initiative could come to fruition through engagement with EaP countries. These are achievable successes. A few days ago the EU welcomed the opening of Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway as a major step in transport interconnections linking the EU, Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Central Asia.

All these examples are of an economic nature. Do you think that the EaP should be an economic space? How about the fundamental principles of Europe – democracy, human rights, say, the humanitarian content of EaP?

There is no contradiction here. The EU was founded on the ruins of WWII originating as an economic community, later on covering more areas of economic interaction. Growing economies nurtured democratic particulars which eventually became the main dominance in determining and uniting European views.

This said, I believe that the citizens of EaP should enjoy a better economic life in order to adopt European values in genuine terms. They need to be closer to Europe and should be connected to it with joint-projects in order to feel as members of the European family. The EU should involve partners in strengthening democratic institutions and civil society. But one cannot artificially “speed up” this process. Such a process takes time. Teaching and preaching has proved to be less effective. Also from the geopolitical point of view, it is in EU/CoE interest to build a real partnership.

As a former President of PACE, you were actively engaged in the establishment of “United European democracy” involving 47 member states from Lisbon to Vladivostok. Is there room in EaP to use this experience?

Indeed, Council of Europe experienced an enlargement to the East during my membership and presidency period in PACE. Initially, this process generated productive results. We could witness the “integration of outlooks” of old and new Europeans. We managed to build a favourable atmosphere conducive to mutual understanding allowing us to address complicated challenges of a transition period that new countries were facing at that time. The complexity of problems did not split us, quite opposite, united us.

But something went wrong recent years. One of the most democratic institutions of Europe opted out for punitive measures for member states. The CoE once used to unite nations became a platform of confrontations. This is a serious problem for CoE placing the organization on the brink of collapse.

Furthermore, the problems of CoE are much bigger than its interaction with only some of its member states. There are hundreds of rulings of ECHR which have not been put into effect by national governments of CoE. This is a serious problem of the CoE. It does not restore the credibility of the CoE if they threaten to expel a member state from the organisation. This is not a solution for these problems. On the contrary, it creates new problems and does not contribute to stabilising this part of the world. It risks even to practice double standards.

But some of the countries, for instance, Azerbaijan, face criticism for violations of human rights, freedom of speech and fragility of civil society. Some critics of this country accuse President Aliyev of deviating from the European foreign policy track…

In these issues, there is a need for further progress.

President Aliyev emphasised in our meetings that true alignment with European values in Azerbaijan is feasible on the basis of a full spectrum of strong political, economic, cultural and educational links between his country and the EU. For example, dozens of Azerbaijani students financed by the State Oil Fund are enrolled in leading academic institutions in Europe and the US every year. This is giving rise to a new European-minded skilled generation.

In my opinion, President Aliyev’s personal sympathy to Europe is not a single drive of his European choice. Despite turbulent developments in the Islamic world and neighbouring regions, Azerbaijan remains to be one of the last secular “islands” in the Muslim world. For these reasons, political ties with Europe, humanitarian involvement in the European space of values is of great importance for Azerbaijan in terms of preserving social mentality of people which, in my opinion, resembles European-Mediterranean.

From the Brussels perspective, Azerbaijan is a county where liberties are lower than the EU. But from Jeddah, the seat of Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC), Azerbaijan is seen as more liberal and democratic than the existing level in the Muslim world.

The duality of seats that Azerbaijan holds in CoE and OIC, coupled with growing threats to secular Islam in the world puts the authorities of the country in a difficult situation. All developments leading to soft (like in Turkey) or radical (like in the majority of Arab countries) Islamisation have been generated on the grounds of democratic institutions in Muslim societies.

The results are vividly evident. This brings some fears to official Baku by prompting it to keep control of some political activities which Islamist groups regularly try to infiltrate.

How would Europeans act in this case?

Do we aim to distance Azerbaijan from European institutions by criticizing the leadership publicly, calling authorities dictators, threatening them with isolation? Or should we speak to Azerbaijan in the spirit of equal partnership which faces Islamism challenges and needs support to preserve European values? The latter seems to be more reasonable.

Which challenges you consider are most persisting in EaP?

Firstly, territorial conflicts, the aggression of one country against others…They pose a big threat to the whole architecture of the EU-EaP interaction, as well as to the realization of infrastructure, energy and transport projects, bringing significant financial and human loss during military actions. Although the EU does not mediate the resolution of these conflicts it can exert its influence on supporting the territorial integrity of these countries, settling disputes on the basis of norms and principles of international law, providing confidence-building measures, reduce the influence of third parties etc.

The lack of a multilateral and project-oriented component of the EaP comes second. The EaP countries are different from each other and therefore, the EU should be guided by a differentiation principle in its relations with partner countries taking into consideration of their individual aspirations and capabilities.

But these countries should not only step on their way to the EU, they also need to see themselves close to partners. Unfortunately, varying dynamics of integration among Eastern partners lead these countries away from each other.

In order to prevent it, they need to be involved in tangible joint-projects that serve the common good and positive results. In this regard the projects which I already mentioned including “connectivity concept” promoted by Commissioner Johannes Hahn pledge confidence and optimism. Arrogant treatment of several EU institutions and member states vis-à-vis EaP countries is my next concern.

Some of us still consider the EaP a “big headache” for the EU when the EU is wrestling with rising domestic challenges. But this is a big mistake. It will be extremely difficult for us to counter emerging challenges and open new opportunities for the EU towards East and Asia as well as Islamic world without active interaction with partners in EaP. Most probably, successful realization of Eastern Partnership and Southern Neighborhood is the last chance for the EU to testify itself as a desired political player in the global dimension.

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