Round-table discussion on EU foreign policy with Federica Mogherini took place in Sofia

Read the main recommendations from the ECFR round-table with the participation of Federica Mogherini.

The European Council on Foreign Relations in cooperation with Sofia Platform and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Bulgaria organised an international round table discussion “The EU in a changing global environment: What next for EU’s Neighbours” with think-tank representatives in the framework of EU’s Global Foreign Policy Strategy Review and the review of the European Neighbourhood Policy.

More that 40 experts from 14 neighbouring countries participated in the discussion and had the opportunity to share their points of view with Federica Mogherini, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice-President of the European Commission. The event took place on 23 July. The discussion was framed in four panels dedicated to the Black Sea region, EU’s Global Strategy Review, the Western Balkans and energy in the Wider Europe region. Read below the main recommendations that were put forward during the different parts of the discussion.

Panel 1: Unrewarding Crossroads: The Black Sea Region amidst the EU and Russia

Introductory remarks: Georgi Pirinski, Member of the European Parliament, ECFR Council Member (Bulgaria)

Andrey Makarychev, Visiting Professor at University of Tartu in Estonia (Russia)

Ghia Nodia, Chairman of the Caucasus Institute for Peace, Democracy and Development (Georgia)

Iryna Solonenko, DAAD/OSF Scholar at the European University Viadrina Frankfurt/Oder (Ukraine)

Richard Giragosian, Founding Director of Regional Studies Center (Armenia)

Moderator: Louisa Slavkova, ECFR/Sofia Platform (Bulgaria)

The discussion was focused on two main questions. Firstly, the participants asked what the countries from the region want from the EU. Secondly, they reflected on the question of what the EU should do vis-à-vis the region.

The dynamics within the Black Sea region was often perceived as a competition between the alluring power of Russia and Turkey. A suggestion for a possible way of avoiding this dynamics featured the creation of a new European macro-region including the Western Balkans and the Black Sea region, i.e. thinking of those as one region and merging together the activities of BSEC and SEECP.

A second line of competition appears between Russia and the EU. There is a visible competition over integration in the region that juxtaposes EU’s attractiveness to Russia’s coercion and pressure. Russia is a power that really contests, while the EU needs a clear sense of direction. At the technical level, the EU is doing a good job through increased funding and conditionality, but the Union is a weak political actor. Although some member states compensate this weakness, in the long term the EU should think about changing its system of partners. At the same time, the lens of geopolitics is not the only framework to look at the situation as some problems are a result of economic and local issues.

Within this competitive context, the EU’s soft-power concept could be easily challenged by Russia as it entails fostering liberal changes, while the Russian soft power is conservative with religious components and does not seek change. Unlike the EU, Russia accepts its partners without being too demanding. In addition, behind Russia’s soft power lies hard power.

At the same time, it is perceived that the problems in the region are not in fact regional but structural and are caused by Russia as the only nation state that is able and willing to question the foundations of the international system. Therefore, policy-makers should look at the regional situation in a global and structural context and divest themselves of wishful thinking. Depriving Putin of the attention he desperately needs might be a key strategy. EU’s attention should be focused on cooperation with well-behaved countries instead of on Russia.

Two possible game changers in the region could be the promise of normalization in relations between Armenia and Turkey and the agreement with Iran.

Main recommendations:

  • The mission of the ENP should be preserved but the instruments should be adjusted. The EU should keep up its ambition to promote stability and democracy in the region;
  • Mechanisms should be created for avoiding the danger of equating countries and societies with their government. The EU should listen more to voices within the society that are not represented in government;
  • The EU needs more consistency in terms of a constant unfaltering message;
  • The EU needs to create conditions for more connectivity between civil society organisations in the Eastern Partnership countries;
  • The EU needs to improve its communication, in order to avoid complacency and be better able to articulate, define and defend European values;
  • What the EU can undertake vis-à-vis Russia beyond sanctions includes, avoiding the “business-as-usual” and “Russia-first” paradigms, continuing with the progress on association agreements; and finally, putting forward a third try-out of the Black sea region concept – a new type of Black Sea regionalism can be a new path to the EU for some countries such as Armenia and Ukraine;
  • Unilateral trade liberalization and introduction of non-visa regimes could be pragmatic instruments of key importance that has never been used towards the region so far.

Panel 2: The European Foreign Policy and the Bulgarian Perspective

Daniel Mitov, Minister of Foreign Affairs (Bulgaria)

Federica Mogherini, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice-President of the European Commission

Meglena Kuneva, Deputy Prime Minister for European Policies Coordination and Institutional Affairs, ECFR Council Member (Bulgaria)

Moderator: Vessela Tcherneva, Programme Director and Head of ECFR ofia Office (Bulgaria)

The discussion focused on EU’s Enlargement Policy, the EU-Russia relationship and migration.

With the five-year-no-enlargement rhetoric, some countries in the Western Balkans have clearly backslided. Nevertheless, there has been some EU-led progress in Kosovo, the context of the Macedonian political crisis, and in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Obviously not all is lost and hence the question becomes how the EU can reinstate its full leverage and credibility and reinvigorate its soft power.

In High Representative Federica Mogherini’s words, the EU first and foremost needs to transform the narrative of the 5-year enlargement freeze into a narrative of a 5-year timeframe to better prepare the candidate countries for enlargement. In this way, it will no longer be a matter of freezing but a matter of proceeding. What can make the European perspective more attractive is credibility. Enlargement is definitely a win-win policy but we need to figure out how to move forward trusting that the other part is really interested, otherwise the process will die. It should become clear that it is not logic of “give and take” but of “give and give” and “take and take.” Brussels needs to overcome the paternalistic approach and to realise that enlargement is of a common interest.

Minister Mitov highlighted that Bulgaria is looking forward to welcoming the Western Balkans into the EU. The key to progress in his opinion is more presence of EU institution and member states in those countries. They should perceive the process as European and not as something that develops on the basis of bilateral relations.

According to Vice Prime Minister Kuneva, to restore EU’s leverage and power of attraction, we need to be very concrete. Trust among partners is important, and we need confidence in the process. In this respect, it is perilous that we do not have a financial framework for enlargement and that some elements, such as science, research and development, and culture, are missing from the process.

In respect to geopolitical dynamics and the role of Russia, Ms Mogherini considers it worrying that for EU’s neighbours the predominant notion is that it is a matter of choice between Russia and the EU. EU’s agenda is not to build zero-sum dynamics in the neighbourhood. The attempt at going back to the spheres of interest should be fought against and the EU should try to rebuild the win-win framework of mind. Asking some countries to choose would be at the very least unsustainable and, in some cases, impossible.

Daniel Mitov explained that the attitude of trying to “understand” Russia is what has led us to the current situation. The EU should have seen the signs in 2008 with the conflict in Georgia but back then the Union chose to focus on its economy and not its values. Going back to the European values and being truthful to those is crucial for the EU role in the region.

In respect to migration, according to the HR, a realistic scenario requires to understand two things: firstly, this is an issue that is not going away; secondly, it is a common European issue that calls for a common European approach and shared institutional responsibility. The elements we need to consider in solving the problem include not only discussing borders and routes, but also seeing the influence of criminal networks and what happens beyond our borders in the countries of origin and transit.

Main recommendations from participants:

  • In relation to the Western Balkans, the EU should communicate its Enlargement Policy better as to avoid the currently dominant perception that these countries are not sincerely wanted in the EU;
  • Countries from the Western Balkans should be involved in intra-EU processes before accession. Candidate countries should be involved in the policy process instead of simply being required to align policies;
  • The EU should be careful not to perpetuate the narrative of democracy vs. stability – this narrative should not exist;
  • The EU should pay more attention to the foreign policy dimension of its relations with the Western Balkans – those states are not only accession countries but also partners.

Panel 3: The EU’s Unfinished Business: What Next for the Western Balkans and Turkey?

Introductory remarks: Dzhema Grozdanova, Head of Foreign Affairs Committee, Bulgarian National Assembly, ECFR Council Member (Bulgaria)

Alida Vracic, Executive Director of the think tank Populari (Bosnia and Herzegovina)

Hedvig Morvai, Executive Director of the European Fund for the Balkans, ECFR Council Member (Serbia)

Remzi Lani, Executive Director of the Albanian Media Institute (Albania)

Sinan Ülgen, Chairman of the Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies (Turkey)

Stevo Pendarovski, Assistant Professor, the University American College Skopje (Macedonia)

Moderator: Tim Judah, The Economist (UK)

The Western Balkans have had more international attention per capita than any other region in the last 10 years. Still progress is stalling and that could undermine the success of EU’s enlargement policy. The EU should figure out how much it is ready to pay for enlargement. At the same time it should realise that the alternative – the policy of benign neglect – does not come at no cost either.

The lengthy and incremental nature of EU – Western Balkans relations needs to be changed as it frustrates the countries from the region. If the EU is to remain the only game in town several conditions ought to be fulfilled. A reasonable and straightforward enlargement timeframe is needed as indifference towards accession timeline exists in some countries (e.g. Macedonia) and threatens democratic reforms. The EU has to become proactive and launch a process of strategic thinking about the enlargement to the Western Balkans. The Union should reiterate that more neighbourhood does not mean less enlargement. More incentives for countries aspiring to EU membership should be added. Having the opportunity to enter the energy union before accession would be a good example. Bilateral problems in the Western Balkans should be solved in a more creative way and not be necessarily linked with the accession process.

The view from Turkey is not very optimistic, the country is about to prove that enlargement is not always successful. There is tangible air of anger and frustration towards the EU even among the youth. The EU has zero credibility, therefore it is impossible to build a coalition of the willing domestically in favour of accession. The EU rhetoric cannot be used to move the society forward. Turkey accepted 2 million refugees and this can become an obstacle to accession – how would the EU deal with this situation even if the accession process is given new impetus in the future?

Main recommendations:

  • The EU should readjust and better utilize existing instruments that have not been put to proper use until now.
  • The EU should use rule of law, fight against corruption and financial conditionality more strategically;
  • The EU should study the Macedonian case for lessons learned – in the Western Balkans there are strong actors and weak institutions, the EU should work towards democratic rule of law;
  • The EU should work towards the creation of substantive democracies and not just formal ones;
  • The Turkish experience/know-how with the EU could provide Turkey with potential leverage through knowledge transfer, therefore Turkey should attempt to use this instrument;
  • A common foreign policy for the Western Balkans, based on the Nordic/Baltic model, could be established;
  • Thanks to buffer countries the EU has the illusion that migration waves can be contained and are manageable. The Union should realise that it is imperative to have more burden sharing in migration.

Panel 4: Beyond the Pipeline Knot: The Future of the Energy Sector in the Wider Europe Region

Introductory remarks: Julian Popov, Fellow of the European Climate Foundation (Bulgaria/UK)

Anca Mihalache, Senior Analyst at Energy Policy Group (Romania)

Chi Kong Chyong, Director of Energy Policy Forum at the University of Cambridge (UK/Ukraine)

Oktay Tanrisever, Editor, Energy and Diplomacy Journal, Professor at the Department of International Relations, Middle East Technical University (Turkey)

Moderator: Adelina Marini, Founder and Editor-in-chief of euinside (Bulgaria)

Energy is increasingly having an important role in the European Union’s external policy. A market-based approach is essential for stable development of the internal EU energy market but also for the Wider Europe region. In terms of energy security, a shift of paradigm is needed away from a focus solely on gas with South Eastern Europe being a prime example, due to its relatively low gas consumption. Instead, an idea for further liberalisation is needed, ensuring market solutions and activating the region’s renewable energy potential. While a variety of complex issues were identified and discussed, the session also provided examples of initiatives having a positive impact, such as the High Level Group on Central and South Eastern Europe Gas Connectivity. The recent deal with Iran and Turkey’s position were on the agenda as well, with panelists concurring of their potentially considerable medium-term effect on the Union’s energy policy.

Energy security is often being mistaken with energy independence by the policy-makers. There is a tendency to ‘pipelise’ energy politics. EU’s narrative regarding the Southern Gas corridor is not accurate as it is unlikely that it will bring sufficient quantities of gas to Europe. The EU should focus on depoliticizing Russia’s gas trade. Turkey’s narrative on the same topic is also misleading since Turkish leaders’ wrongly put emphasis on the possibility for Turkey to ‘become another Russia’. Cooperation with the private sector in Turkey is key when it comes to overcoming Turkey’s reluctance to join the Energy Community. Eventually, Turkey could play an essential role for the Energy Union.

Energy should always be about the market and not about foreign policy, and South Eastern Europe finally understands that liberalisation is key. When it comes to the Iran deal and its impact on Europe’s energy sector, the immediate effects might be negligible, but the effects will start becoming apparent in five to ten years. Iran has great potential as a source for both oil and gas for the EU.

Main recommendations:

  • EU’s current Energy Union project is not ambitious enough. The Union should make a better use its existing legislative measures and tools to enhance the Union’s energy independence;
  • Policy-makers in the EU and the member states should stop equating energy security with the security of gas supplies. Energy security is a much more inclusive concept that encompasses the development of a country’s own resources, development of renewables and enhancing interconnectedness in addition to exploiting the traditional gas delivery routes.
  • When it comes to Ukraine, the Energy Union should help the country build institutional capacity;
  • The EU should make the necessary effort in engaging Turkey in the Energy Community despite the country’s reluctance;
  • It is important for the EU to put emphasis on the market-based approach and depoliticise the discussion on energy.

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


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