The stories that the world is going to change after the coronavirus pandemic are and will be widely popular in the coming months. It is clear that there will certainly be changes, but it is hardly worth waiting for a large-scale redrawing of the political map of the world and a radical revision of the balance of power. The same principle applies to the united Europe as well. As EU countries announce weakening of quarantine measures, the political grievances related to the coronavirus also recede. And the EU is returning to the traditional agenda, one of the pillars of which is the Eastern Partnership program.
On May 11, the Council of the European Union approved a document, which is now the official position of the EU regarding the Eastern Partnership. Earlier, at the Brussels Summit in 2017, the EU adopted ‘20 Deliverables for 2020’, which deals with specific reforms and projects in the economy, public administration, infrastructure and the development of society. But now the European Union declares not instructions for new neighbours, but principles.
First, the EU reaffirms the strategic importance of the partnership and the joint commitment to a common area of shared democracy, prosperity and stability. At the same time, Europe relies on “the rules of international order, international law, including territorial integrity, independence and sovereignty,” as stated in the principles of the Helsinki Final Act and the OSCE Charter of Paris.
This is a great success for Azerbaijan. In fact, EU expressed its support for territorial integrity earlier too. But now respect for international law and territorial integrity along with democracy, human rights, etc. is included in the list of basic principles, which the EU will use with respect to the Eastern Partnership countries. This is exactly what Azerbaijan has sought and finally achieved from the European Union.
Undoubtedly, this is a good news for Azerbaijan but a bad one for Armenia. After the victory of the “shish kebab revolution” of Nikol Pashinyan, Yerevan clearly hoped that the image of the “country of victorious democracy” would help to achieve serious success in the European diplomacy. But in reality, events are developing exactly the opposite - the European Union declares principles adjusted in favour of Azerbaijan.
The above EU document also expressed support for conflict resolution. But unlike previously, when the EU declared merely a support of the efforts of the Minsk Group, called for dialogue, etc., a lot has changed this time. The document states that the EU Council is “deeply concerned about the continuing violations of international law in some countries of the region,” meaning the violations of international law, and not just the “unresolved” issues, which is also clearly in line with the position of Azerbaijan. In addition, the EU expressed support for “peaceful conflict settlement under the agreed negotiating formats and processes”. It may seem a traditional rhetoric, but experts remind: the Armenian diplomacy has long attempted, albeit unsuccessfully, to ensure the involvement of the leaders of Karabakh’s Armenian community to the negotiation process in a status of a “third party to the conflict”. Now, if the European Union announces support for the existing negotiation formats, this means the end of Armenia’s plans to turn the negotiations into a trilateral one. Azerbaijan has achieved impressive benefits from the EU on the most important and sensitive issue. But it was not easy – Azerbaijan insisted and achieved the adjustment of the nuances of the EU position. And diplomacy is the art of nuances.
Finally, in terms of Azerbaijan, the Council "welcomes the progress in the ongoing negotiations between the EU and Azerbaijan for a new framework agreement."
The fact that this document was released is already a great success for Azerbaijan. On the eve of the Eastern Partnership Summit in 2013 (Vilnius), Azerbaijan refused to sign an association agreement with the European Union, which Brussels offered to the participating countries, and insisted on the preparation of an agreement on strategic partnership.
“European standards”, “at the European level”, etc. - all these words sound quite attractive. But in reality, European integration provided and continues to provide not only high standards of human rights, but also economic conditions, which do matter differently for each individual signatory country.
Remember Greece, which found itself in the grip of a severe crisis back in 2008. Euroexperts were discussing the super inflated social costs, blaming Greece for "too expensive" life standards, but did not mention something else. Euro directives and the decisions of the governing bodies of the EU, in fact, destroyed shipbuilding in Greece, which until recently was a true object of pride for the Greek. And that's not all. As a result of the European quotas policy, Athens has turned from an exporter of many types of agricultural products into an importing country. Cotton industry halved in volume, vineyards were abandoned, and even olive oil had to be imported from neighbouring Italy. In Poland, coal mines were abandoned, although the coal mining industry of the country had the same meaning for the Poles as sugar for Cubans.
Master class of diplomacy
Association agreements with the EU presented difficulties for the countries involved in the Eastern Partnership too. At the same time, the main "prize" - accession to the EU - was pushed into the uncertain future. There was no automatic membership in the European Union, which means that the possibility of influencing the decision-making process of “associated membership” was not provided. Not to mention the fact that Baku did not want to share sovereignty with Brussels at all.
In fact, President Ilham Aliyev already demonstrated a diplomatic master class in terms of Azerbaijan’s relations with the EU. Azerbaijan did not succumb to ‘Eurohypnosis’ and ‘Euroillusions’. Ilham Aliyev voiced his uncomfortable questions: “Is there any progress since Turkey signed the association agreement with the EU? No.” Then he answered: “Only because Turkey is a Muslim country. Now they say it openly. In this case, will Azerbaijan be accepted there? No. The representatives of parties calling to stop the spread of Islam and Muslim migrants come to power in the EU. And what will be the status of Azerbaijan there? As a second grade country? Or as a state seeking benefits?” Incidentally, the oil-rich Norway is not part of the European Union, while the “mistress” of BP, Great Britain, left the union recently...
Baku did not welcome the agreement on strategic partnership with the EU immediately. At his meeting with the youth, President Aliyev revealed some important points. Firstly, Azerbaijan is not a member of the WTO. “...The time has not ripen for such a membership, since the basis of our exports today is oil and gas. In addition, we need to protect the domestic market and producers in industry and agriculture,” Aliyev explained. He added that inside the WTO itself there is also a crisis, as the United States is reconsidering its membership in the organisation. Even the WTO members are in conflict with each other in terms of trade relations. Aliyev voiced the second controversial issue - energy prices. “We are offered to export gas at internal prices. What does this mean? Today 85% of the Azerbaijani population pays for gas at a reduced price, about ₼100 ($58) per 1,000 cubic meters, while in Europe the prices vary between $300-500 for the same volume of gas. It means that we need to sharply increase the domestic price, which is unacceptable, or to export gas at a price of $58, which is impossible. Therefore, we have to agree upon these two key issues,” Ilham Aliyev added.
For now, the open and closed issues remain behind the closed doors of negotiations. But if the EU welcomes the progress, that means a lot. Especially to those experts who know who needs support more: Europe or Azerbaijan? Baku persistently and skilfully advances its interests, bargaining for every comma. At the same time, it increased concrete and tangible cooperation with the EU, primarily in energy and logistics, given the instrumental role of both the Southern Gas Corridor and the revived Silk Road. This is a kind of very successful and productive diplomacy on behalf of Azerbaijan with a sense of dignity, which is so rare these days.