How Riga was perceived in Berlin

Many in Eastern Europe viewed the Riga Summit as a disappointment, but what did Germany make of it?

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In Eastern Europe, the results of the EU Eastern Partnership summit in Riga were treated as a big disappointment. Russia’s actions in Crimea were not denounced, because of Belarus and Armenia. There was no clear endorsement of an EU membership pathway for Ukraine, Moldova or Georgia, nor was there was any big announcement on visa liberalisation.

Yet in Germany, the summit was not perceived as a bad result. The limitations of the Union’s Eastern Partnership are known, and the summit stayed essentially within the policies’ limits.

First of all, the Riga summit gained little attention in Berlin as Grexit, Brexit and the elections in Spain and Poland dominated the news. Germany is afraid of losing its allies in the struggle for a market-oriented, competitive EU to either nationalist exit strategies or domestic electoral troubles. With the EU itself at risk the first and foremost task for Berlin is to maintain the Union as a functional organisation. EU foreign policy comes after that.

Secondly, inherent weaknesses within the neighbourhood policy meant that German politicians can still claim that the summit was not designed to give more than there was on the table. Visa liberalisation depends on the progress reports from the Commission, the same applies to the implementation of the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) with Georgia. There was no guarantee for Membership-Perspective in the EaP, and even if it were, the countries are years from fulfilling the Copenhagen criteria. There is no Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) dimension within the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP), so security issues are not on the table – although they dominate all political considerations on Europe’s eastern neighbourhood. For Germany, there was not much more to expect from the summit.

But these gaps within the EaP suit German domestic politics. Further EU enlargement is very unpopular with the German electorate. The same is true for introducing a CSDP-dimension into the neighbourhood policy. Most German citizens fear that Europe might be dragged into the military conflicts of the periphery. The desire not to repeat the Cold War and the negative attitude developed towards post-cold war interventionism reinforces this public mood. And the closer German politicians get to the 2017 general elections, the more sensitive they become to leaving an open flank for criticism.

There is, however, a further dimension to German reluctance than just concern for public opinion. As the EU becomes increasingly divergent and politically incoherent, Germany regards pushing EU policies to new horizons as something that carries more risks than opportunities. At a time when certain member states are demanding the re-nationalisation of many policy competences allocated to Brussels, pushing for a foreign policy agenda that is unpopular at home and amongst larger parts of Europe seems self-defeating. Hence the Union’s foreign policy needs to be flanked by bilateral policies to supplement it.

German foreign minister Frank Walter Steinmeier travelled to Kyiv last week to talk not only about the crisis in east Ukraine, but also Ukraine’s reform process and Germany’s assistance to it. Chancellor Merkel visited Ukraine in the middle of May. The Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk visited Berlin shortly before. Given the harsh economic decline (Ukraine’s GDP shrunk by 18 percent in the first quarter of 2015) the financial situation of Ukraine has worsened due to declining state revenues. Now financial aid needs to be accompanied by an economic revival – which on the other hand requires the full implementation of decentralisation and administrative reform. As there is neither any provision for emergency funding for states in trouble in the ENP, just as there is no conflict management mechanism within the Eastern Partnership, these steps have to be provided bilaterally.

This selective bilateralism provides Germany the opportunity to grant Ukraine or other ENP countries the support it can legitimise at home. And while Germany is afraid of moving towards military assistance or arms deliveries for Ukraine in an EU or NATO framework, there seems to be few objections if other states that face little domestic opposition against this policy would do so bilaterally. There was no public criticism on the UK or the US sending military advisors or training the Ukrainian National Guard – and this may be interpreted in many ways.

This is something of a paradox for the EU’s foreign policy performance. The European Union seems incapable to formulate a comprehensive foreign policy because of the hesitation of several national governments – including Germany. On the other hand the German way of supplementing EU policy by selective bilateralism can be described as a pragmatic way of dealing with the inner-European divisions and diverging domestic policy cultures. The wider question remains: who should or could coordinate the multitude of selective bilateralisms we can expect to flourish because of the limitations put on the EU’s foreign policy?

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.

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