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Column The EU’s Eastern Partnership in tatters – is a fresh energy strategy the answer?

The creation of a vibrant renewable energy sector would not only give the EaP countries energy independence, it would also reduce Russian political interference in their affairs, writes David Moloney.

TWENTY DAYS BEFORE Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was to sign the EU–Ukraine Association Agreement in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, he met with Russian President Vladimir Putin on a Russian air force base outside Moscow. Due to the clandestine nature of the meeting there were no records kept, but it is safe to assume that there was only one topic of conversation: the Association Agreement.

After Yanukovych and Putin’s meeting, Yanukovych decided not to sign the EU–Ukraine Association Agreement sparking off large scale and often violent protests in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev. The failure by the European Commission and Member State leaders to counter Putin’s belligerent stance towards the deepening of EU and Ukrainian relations has effectively ended the EU’s Eastern Partnership (EaP) initiative for the foreseeable future.

What is the EU’s Eastern Partnership?

Launched during the Czech EU Presidency in May 2009, the EU’s Eastern Partnership (EaP) aims to deepen the economic integration and political co-operation between the EU and the ‘six partner countries’ – namely Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.

The EaP works in the framework of the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP), a 2004 action plan drawn up by the European Commission which calls for closer ties with countries in Eastern Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. However, it also goes beyond these aims: unlike the ENP, the EaP facilitates visa systems between the ‘six partner countries’ and the European Union, and has introduced a ‘Comprehensive Institution Building Programme’ that enhances the capabilities of the partner countries’ public institutions.

While involvement with the EaP does not guarantee membership of the EU for the ‘six partner countries’, the economic and political reforms that are encouraged by the 28 Member States would have to be implemented if they wished to join.

Russia sinks the EaP

Many people, most notably Barack Obama, scoffed at the assertion made by the Republican Presidential challenger Mitt Romney in the Third Presidential Debate on foreign policy that Russia was the top US political foe. However since the re-election of Putin as Russia’s president, the country has emerged as the chief counterweight not only to US foreign policy but also to the EU’s.

In four of the ‘six partner countries’, Russian influence is growing while the EU’s is in decline. Along with vetoing the EU–Ukraine Association Agreement, Russia has continued to support the dictatorial regime of the Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, thus ensuring that the EU-Belarus Partnership and Cooperation Agreement which has been frozen since 1997 remains that way.

Russia has also continued to pay close attention to its relations with Armenia and Azerbaijan. Armenia, which was set to sign a ‘deep and comprehensive free-trade agreement’ (DCFTA) at the EaP-EU Summit last November, announced in September that it was instead joining the Russian-led customs union. Meanwhile Azerbaijan, which is in a territorial dispute with neighbouring Armenia, has recently purchased $4 billion of arms from Russia, binding the two countries ever closer.

Dependence on Russian gas

Moldova produces no natural gas, resulting in the country importing 100% of its gas needs from Russia – and the country is not alone in its dependence on Russian gas. IEA figures show that imports of Russian gas account for 85% and 100% of the total natural gas imports of Armenia and Belarus respectively. Ukraine is also highly dependent on imported Russian gas – 70% of its gas imports come from its largest neighbour.

To counter Russia’s energy-based foreign policy, the EU must develop its own, which could be based on renewables. The EU has already set out targets for the use of renewable energies that each Member State must meet before 2020. If the EU is serious about meeting the 2020 target and rescuing the EaP, then European leaders must take steps to provide funding to help create a renewable energy sector in Georgia, and also support the fledging solar power sector in  Ukraine by reducing or abolishing energy tariffs.

The creation of a vibrant renewable energy sector would not only give the EaP countries energy independence, it would also reduce Russian political interference in their affairs. The EU itself would also benefit from such a policy; not only would the EU have a cheap source of renewable energy, which would drive down the costs of electricity for both businesses and citizens, it would also tie the ‘six partner countries’ to the union.

Building relations with pro-European opposition leaders

However before any such policy is proposed, the EU needs to establish relationships with pro-European opposition leaders in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Belarus to counter pro-Russian parties. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has already taken steps to build a partnership with Vitali Klitschko, the current reigning WBC heavyweight champion and leader of the pro-European opposition in  Ukraine. Logistical support has also been provided to Klitschko’s Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform (UDAR) by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, a thinktank with close links with Merkel’s party.

If the EU is serious about the EaP then it must be prepared to support it and the pro-European parties in the ‘six partner countries’ at all costs. Doing so could pay huge dividends for Europe in the future.

Read: Putin woos Ukraine President with €11 billion bond deal

Explainer: What exactly is going on in Ukraine?

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