Eastern Partnership summit could do with Catherine Ashton’s diplomatic magic

EU foreign policy is again to the fore as a tricky accord is sought with Ukraine

Activists hold European Union and Ukrainian flags during a meeting to support EU integration at European Square in Kiev on Tuesday. Photograph: Sergei Chuzavkov/AP

Activists hold European Union and Ukrainian flags during a meeting to support EU integration at European Square in Kiev on Tuesday. Photograph: Sergei Chuzavkov/AP


Amid the dense, 177-page coalition agreement hammered out by Germany’s two largest parties in the early hours of yesterday morning, one detail in particular stands out.

The document calls for a “strengthening and deepening” of EU foreign policy, and enhanced powers for the high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, the EU’s grandiose title for its top foreign policy official.

The call for greater EU involvement in foreign affairs is timely. The past weeks have been a watershed for European foreign policy. The signing of an interim agreement with Iran last weekend was a defining moment in international relations, and one in which the EU played a decisive role. Despite last weekend’s revelations the US and Iran had engaged in secret diplomacy ahead of the deal, the EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton has chaired talks with Iran for more than three years.

From its handling of the Balkan wars in the 1990s to its response to the Arab Spring, the EU has been forced to fend off criticism over its lack of a strong foreign policy stance. The Iran deal refutes that.

Representative role
For Ashton it’s a particular coup. The 57-year-old Labour peer, whose tenure comes to an end next year, was the first person to assume the role of high representative, a position created under the Lisbon Treaty which paved the way for the establishment of a separate EU foreign policy wing, the European External Action Service.

Suspicions that Ashton was the UK’s default candidate in 2009 fuelled consistent criticisms of her performance. The Iran deal – and her success in brokering an agreement between Serbia and Kosovo earlier this year – has proven that a strong work ethic and understated diplomatic style can yield results. It also shows that the criticism often levelled at the EU’s foreign policy – that the EU cannot represent the very divergent views of its 28 member states – can ultimately be its strength, as the bloc proved its ability to act as an effective go-between between different national positions.

But while the interim Iran agreement may be a feather in the cap of Brussels’s diplomacy, the EU is facing an uphill battle with another key strand of its foreign policy, the Eastern Partnership.

Propelled by Lithuania’s tenure of the Council of the EU presidency, the Eastern Partnership summit which opens today in Vilnius had hoped to secure Ukraine’s commitment to a commercial and political accord with the EU. Last week’s decision by Ukraine to withdraw from the talks after six years of negotiations dealt a blow to the strategy. Political brinkmanship continued yesterday.

Europe maintained a tough line, with Lithuania’s foreign minister, Linas Linkevicius, leaving the door open for an agreement but warning the window would close thereafter. “We are ready to hold the necessary meetings in Vilnius, if there is a need,” he said yesterday, but added the chance of signing the agreement is “very small”.

In Kiev, as protests continued on the streets and former Ukrainian prime minister Julia Tymoshenko began her second day of hunger strike, Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych told Ukrainian television he still hoped to reach an agreement, but needed to first “resolve issues” with Russia.

Russian influence
In a sinister reminder of the enormous political pressure exerted on Ukraine by its former master, Russia yesterday announced it was lifting its embargo on products from Ukrainian confectioner Roshen which it banned in July citing health concerns.

All eyes today will be on Yanukovych at the summit in the Lithuanian capital. But focus is also turning to Moldova and Georgia, both due to “initial” association agreements. There are fears Russia will turn its attention to the two small ex-Soviet states. Yesterday’s confirmation by the European Commission that it is to allow visa-free travel to the Schengen area for Moldovan citizens, could be seen as a move to maintain momentum , amid criticism it did not offer Ukraine enough enticements.

With relations still tense between Georgia and Russia five years after the 2008 conflict, the south Caucasian state has indicated it is prepared to defy Russia and initial the accord with the EU. As the site of pipelines carrying oil from the Caspian Sea, it is of strategic importance. Even if the agreements are initialled by Moldova and Georgia this week, swift progress on the next stages of the association agreements will be essential.

As all 28 member states face down Yanukovych today in Vilnius, officials may hope a little Ashton diplomacy will come into play as the bloc attempts to make progress on a complex and politically charged strategy.

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