Of all the EU institutions, it is the European Parliament that has taken the lead in pushing the EU to play a greater role in the South Caucasus, recognizing the importance of creating an essential role for a region of considerable geostrategic importance.
In May 2010, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on “the need for an EU Strategy for the South Caucasus.” While supporting existing EU initiatives such as the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) and the Eastern Partnership, the European Parliament called for an increasingly active role from the EU to transform the South Caucasus into a region of sustainable peace, stability and prosperity with an aim to enhance the integration of these countries with European policies. While one cannot say all of the recommendations were picked up and acted on by the EU, the EU has progressively strengthened its ties with the region, now negotiating Association Agreements with all three countries. These agreements, once ratified, would substantially deepen the level of economic and political ties between the two partners, which in turn should help to strengthen democracy.
Turning to Nagorno-Karabakh, an internationally recognized region of Azerbaijan, the EU, for right or for wrong, has always tried to take a balanced approach in dealing with Azerbaijan and Armenia on this issue. While the EU has been unable to have a seat in the negotiations to resolve the two-decade old conflict, as this is carried out by France, being one of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group co-chairs, the EU has tried to play a stronger role through civil society activity and has financed confidence-building measures aimed at improving people-to-people contacts, particularly amongst youth. Looking for additional ways in which to help stimulate a solution, some EU actors seem to believe there is an opportunity to use the Association Agreements to this end.
Both Azerbaijan and Armenia are interested in strengthening ties with the EU. Negotiations on the Association Agreements were launched in July 2010 and so far 24 out of the 28 negotiations have been closed with Armenia, while some 13 with Azerbaijan.
Earlier this week, the European Parliament adopted resolutions on these two Association Agreements. The parliamentary resolutions make recommendations to the European Council and Commission on lines to take during the negotiations. While neither is obliged to take up the recommendations, since the Lisbon Treaty came into force the role of the European Parliament has been strengthened, meaning that for such agreements to come into force they also need to be signed off on and ratified in the European Parliament as well as in the 27 national parliaments.
The two resolutions point out that the implementation of these agreements should make the region safer, both by promoting the peaceful settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and by making EU support conditional on their human rights performance and democratic reforms. While it calls on both parties to do more to bring about a solution to the Karabakh conflict and condemns spiraling military spending, it also calls on EU member states to stop supplying Armenia and Azerbaijan with weapons.
Moreover, the resolutions draw a direct link between the signing of the agreement and the progress in the OSCE Minsk Group talks on a set of basic principles the two sides are presently working towards, stating the negotiations on the EU-Azerbaijani and EU-Armenian Association Agreements should be “linked to credible commitments to making substantial progress towards the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, including, for example, confidence-building measures such as general demilitarisation, the withdrawal of snipers from the line of contact, the withdrawal of Armenian forces from occupied territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh and their return to Azerbaijani control, and a mechanism for active incident-prevention and the investigation of cease-fire violations along the line of contact, the right of all internally displaced persons and refugees to return to their home settlements and properties and international security guarantees that would include a genuine multinational peacekeeping operation in order to create suitable conditions for the future legally-binding free expression of will concerning the final status of Nagorno-Karabakh.”
Indeed, in theory, using the Association Agreement to progress the stalled Nagorno-Karabakh talks would seem like a good move. However, the initiative was not welcomed by those in the EU’s External Action Service, by the EU special representative for the South Caucasus, by a number of EU member states, or by Armenia. Because Association Agreements are seen as a tool to help bring about the democratic transformation of a country, there is fear that linking it to Karabakh will kill both processes. Moreover, it is claimed that Azerbaijan is not as interested as Yerevan in an Association Agreement and that it is thereby an unfair linkage.
Nevertheless, even though the idea may not have broad EU support, the fact the finalized Agreement would need to be ratified by the European Parliament may have consequences in the long term.