The EU summit meeting with the bloc's eastern neighbors in Riga necessarily had to lead to disappointment. That's because Russia has politically outflanked Europe, writes Barbara Wesel.
"Let me be frank: Beauty does count." EU Council President Donald Tusk said out loud what German Chancellor Angela Merkel had strictly avoided. "If Russia was a bit softer, more charming, more attractive, perhaps it wouldn't have to compensate its shortcomings by destructive, aggressive and bullying tactics," he said. The former Polish prime minister referred to the conflict in Ukraine so often that this Eastern Partnership meeting was practically paralyzed.
Discussions about progress towards EU membership, democratization, the fight against corruption, human rights and legal reform in the countries on the eastern edge of the EU are always subject to the condition that they should not irritate Moscow. No one wants to endanger the delicate balance the Europeans negotiated for eastern Ukraine with which they transformed the military conflict in a kind of frozen conflict.
No promises, no regrets
The forbidden word in Riga was therefore "accession." The joint statement of the summit carefully avoided anything reminiscent of specific prospects or even simple promises. Instead, there was vague talk of rapprochement and cooperation.
So, the already signed free trade agreement with Ukraine will come into force early next year. But there wasn't even a whisper about loosening visa requirements in the near future. The fear of a mass emigration towards Western Europe is too great.
And this example shows what has become of the original big idea of the Eastern Partnership in recent years: A smorgasbord of political half-measures and agreements on the smallest steps of cooperation and compromise. It's rule by fear of Moscow's reaction.
Even before the leaders came together there were fears that this summit would end in disappointment, and that the partnership policy had failed. These were justified. But the reason is that the political situation has changed in an unpredictable way. Three more western-oriented neighbors today stand against three others that are in thrall to Moscow. And several of them are beset by unresolved regional conflicts caused by Russian intervention.
On the other hand, now even Belarus, firmly in the Russian orbit, fears Vladimir Putin's limitless power. The example of eastern Ukraine has frightened dictator Alexander Lukashenko. He won some bonus points in the West for his help with the Minsk talks. The EU has therefore left a small side door open in the direction of his authoritarian regime. Only Azerbaijan is becoming increasingly dictatorial and moving away from any shared values.
The EU's response to the complex, variable and differentiated situation in the countries on its eastern edge is a kind of à la carte neighborhood policy. For each there is a separate approach, special aid programs, minor concessions or admonitions. But there is no more talk of future prospects or visions.
It is clear that countries, like Ukraine and Georgia, are frustrated and disappointed, even if President Petro Poroshenko is hiding his feelings. After all, he knows how many concrete reform steps he must make before there is even the slightest chance that Ukraine could come closer to the EU.
Not only in his country is this a devastating blow for the development of civil society and democratic progress. Citizens will feel that they have no chance anyway and their desires do not matter. But Brussels is caught in a dilemma between consideration for Moscow and supporting neighboring countries. It only acts with the utmost caution.
Nothing is left of the initial optimism that came with the establishment of the Eastern Partnership six years ago. Europe does not dare make a show of strength in the east. That's too bad - but that's realpolitik.