The upcoming Eastern Partnership (EaP) summit, which will take place in Brussels on November 24, will be filled with symbolism for EU-Armenia relations. Four years after Armenia backed away from signing an Association Agreement to join instead the Eurasian Economic Union, the two partners are finally ready to formally sign a new tailor-made agreement—a Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement—and take their relations to a new level.
Over the last four years, Armenia and the EU worked hard to mend relations, rebuild trust, and develop concrete answers to each others’ needs. In fact, despite Armenia’s strong dependence on Russia in many strategic areas, including military, political, energy and to a large extent economic and financial sectors, pursuing a foreign policy based on the principle of complementarity remains a strategic objective for Armenia. Cooperation with NATO and political association with the EU are two central aspects in that strategy, which obviously become harder to attain when relations between Russia and the West become strained.
For the EU, moving relations with Armenia forward in a way that was compatible with Yerevan’s new commitments to the Eurasian Economic Union posed a significant challenge. Although the European Neighbourhood Policy and the EaP were revised in 2015 to allow for more flexible and differentiated approaches to each of the EaP countries (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine), Armenia’s commitments to the Eurasian Customs Union meant that the EU’s proposals for a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement with Armenia had to be revised, since they are incompatible under World Trade Organisation rules.
Besides the economic dimension, Armenia is also an important and symbolic partner in the South Caucasus, with strong supporters, namely the Armenian diaspora, in many EU countries and in Brussels. Keeping some form of political association on the table will allow the EU some leverage over the Armenian government on much needed domestic reforms, and will send a message of political commitment to Armenia, despite Russia’s dominant position in the country’s affairs.
As an EaP participant, Armenia gradually moved from one of the most enthusiastic EU partners—aiming to benefit from the political, economic, financial and technical opportunities provided by this partnership—to falling behind in political association and economic integration. However, this did not mean that the EU neglected issues of institutional reform, democracy, human rights, or the rule of law. As jointly agreed with Armenia, the Partnership Priorities for the next several years include: strengthening institutions and good governance, including on human rights, fundamental freedoms and rule of law, electoral reform, reform of public administration, fighting corruption, and reform of the security sector.
“Armenia gradually moved from one of the most enthusiastic EU partners to falling behind in political association and economic integration.”
A second priority deals with economic development and market opportunities. Here, the focus is on reforms to contribute to sustainable budgetary policies, improving the business environment, fostering private-public dialogue, and supporting Armenia’s development strategy, among other things.
A third priority focuses on the strategically important goal of improving Armenia’s regional connectivity, energy security, and environmental performance.
Improving national standards on many sectors is fundamental, as is making sure Armenia overcomes the current isolation imposed by Azerbaijan and Turkey due to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, and is somehow included into the major connectivity projects developing in the region. The final priority is mobility and people-to-people contacts, namely aiming at Visa Liberalisation and improving opportunities for training of Armenians in Europe.
These goals are ambitious and provide important opportunities for the Armenian society to modernise, become more transparent and accountable, and to develop new economic and political prospects. However, this does not mean that any of these goals will automatically develop out of a formal agreement, such as the one that might be signed on the upcoming summit. It will take a significant commitment by Armenian authorities and society to achieving these goals, as well as to consider the costs they impose on the country in a difficult regional context.
As for the EU, coherently and consciously pursuing these policies will also require reflection on its own impact in regional dynamics, namely the Karabakh conflict. Without pushing for commitments on this issue, the EU’s bid to ease Armenian isolation will most likely fail, and represent for all purposes a biased positioning of the EU on the conflict. Without substantial considerations on this front EU policy may in fact make local problems more acute.
Licinia Simão is an Assistant Professor at the University of Coimbra in Portugal and an EDSN Fellow. Her new book, The EU’s Neighbourhood Policy towards the South Caucasus, was recently published by Palgrave Macmillan.