The Ukraine crisis remained a top foreign policy priority for the European Union in the first half of 2015. However, the Union’s focus shifted when it became overwhelmed by the eurozone crisis, the refugee crisis, the war in Syria, and the fight against Islamic State (ISIS). Still, Russia’s military action in Ukraine and intimidation of other neighbours continued to pose a fundamental challenge to the core principles of the European security order throughout 2015.
Germany and France led diplomatic efforts to find a solution to the crisis in Ukraine, and the EU maintained a united position on sanctions against Russia. Most importantly, it remained firm on its commitment to the Eastern Partnership countries, despite Russian attempts to divide the EU on this issue.
The first Minsk peace agreement on the Ukraine conflict remained unimplemented when the year began, as fighting continued in the Donbas. France and Germany tried to find a way out of the conflict, brokering the Minsk II agreement in February. But even as the ceasefire supposedly entered into force, Russia and its proxies engaged in further military offensives. Fighting only halted in September (when Russia initiated its Syria military campaign), resuming in late October. Russia maintained a military presence in the Donbas throughout the year. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) played an important role in monitoring the ceasefire, though its access was restricted by Russia’s proxies.
Some progress was made on implementing the political provisions of the Minsk agreement in 2015. The Ukrainian parliament passed amendments to the constitution to decentralise political power in a first reading in late August. Local elections that the Russian proxies had threatened to hold in the areas under their control (in contravention of Ukrainian law and the Minsk agreement) were cancelled.
The EU remained firm and united on sanctions policy against Russia. In July, the EU linked the future removal of sanctions on Russian economic sectors to the full implementation of the Minsk II agreement, and, at the end of 2015, the EU extended sanctions for another six months. The EU’s unity on sanctions remained the backbone of a coherent, forceful, and principled policy on Russia and its breach of fundamental principles of international order. The coming year is likely to see calls for further engagement with Russia.
In the context of increased Russian pressure on the eastern neighbourhood, the EU and its eastern partners held a summit in Riga in May. The EU chose a middle way between giving in to Russian demands and further encouraging the European aspirations of Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova. A new version of the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) was presented in November. Its main focus was stabilisation, given the refugee crisis and the war in Syria. Nothing new was offered to the eastern neighbours that aspire to become EU members.
The EU continued to support Ukraine’s reform efforts through development and technical aid. Trilateral talks between the EU, Ukraine, and Russia on Moscow’s concerns about the EU–Ukraine Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) were held throughout the year. The EU stayed firm on its position that the DCFTA is a bilateral issue between the EU and Ukraine. Implementation began on 1 January 2016, and Russia reacted with trade sanctions. The EU also helped Ukraine to broker the “winter package”, a gas deal with Russian firm Gazprom for supplies over the winter. Negotiations were easier than in 2014, but after the electricity supply to Crimea was cut in November, Russia retaliated by cutting off gas, coal, and nuclear fuel supplies to Ukraine.
The five other countries of the eastern neighbourhood (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, and Moldova) continued on their different trajectories, with setbacks for Georgia and Moldova, countries that aspire to become EU members. Georgia remained a committed partner, but a government clampdown on an opposition television station called progress into question. In Moldova, the pro-EU government fell after a $1 billion corruption scandal implicating the ruling parties. Azerbaijan further tightened its grip on civil society and imprisoned several activists. In December, talks began on an EU–Armenia agreement to replace the Association Agreement (AA) and DCFTA that Armenia rejected in 2013. In Belarus, Alyaksandr Lukashenka won the presidential elections for the fifth time. He pardoned political prisoners and allowed an unprecedented level of dissent during the election campaign, causing the EU to lift most sanctions against the country. Belarus continued its balancing act between the EU and Russia, but demonstrated some concern about Russia’s new military assertiveness and Moscow’s demands for an airbase on its territory.
Wider Europe remains pivotal for Europe’s energy policy and efforts to diversify supply routes. The EU launched its Energy Union Framework Strategy in February, aimed at maintaining energy security for its members. Russia has not, however, given up on its plans to bypass Eastern Europe and access the Central European gas market directly, as shown by the launch of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. In November, the European Commission stated that the project would not receive EU funding, and, by the end of the year, still had not determined whether it complied with EU rules.
The refugee crisis pushed the Western Balkans to the forefront of European politics. Its countries, notably Serbia and Macedonia, came under serious strain from the inflow of refugees, particularly when neighbouring EU member states closed their borders. Some boxes were ticked in the enlargement process, but reform remained limited and was held back by political crises in several countries. The Berlin process for the Western Balkans remained important and led to another meeting in Vienna in August.
The refugee crisis also affected relations with Turkey and prompted the EU to step up its engagement and take a more pragmatic approach towards Ankara in order to buy its cooperation. The EU agreed to “re-energise” the accession process with Turkey while softening its emphasis on human rights and the rule of law, even as the situation in the country deteriorated. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) won a solid majority in the November elections. The Kurdish peace process broke down in the course of the year and fighting between government forces and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militant group resumed, intensifying towards year-end. Furthermore, Russia’s military intervention on the side of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and the subsequent downing by Turkey of a Russian plane, meant that Russia–Turkey relations dramatically deteriorated.
The wider Europe region will pose a major challenge for EU foreign policy in 2016. The EU still has to find an effective way to deal with a Russia that is increasingly unpredictable, is intent on pulling neighbours into its orbit, and seems to have lowered its threshold for use of force. Russia’s intervention in Syria has only complicated Europe’s “Russia problem”. The situation in Ukraine remains fragile and progress depends on Moscow. As in 2015, wider Europe will continue to be the central testing ground for EU foreign policy. From armed conflict in the Donbas to economic reform in Kyiv, from Russian pressure on Eastern Partnership countries to stalling reform in the Western Balkans and a new dependence on Turkey, events in the region will test Europe’s cohesion, its commitment to its values, and its ability to multitask.
Leaders: Denmark, France, Germany, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, Sweden
Several EU countries stood out in their support for Ukraine’s efforts to implement its reform agenda and deal with Russian aggression in the Donbas and annexation of Crimea. Denmark, Germany, Lithuania, Poland, Sweden, and Slovakia were especially helpful on reforms, providing political as well as financial support. Germany, Poland, and Sweden also demonstrated leadership in their response to Russian aggression in the Donbas, and Lithuania was particularly active in the Security Council. France’s presence in the Normandy format talks helped keep the southern members of the EU on board.
Leaders: Austria, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, the UK
EU member states’ engagement with the Western Balkans also differed in intensity. The leaders here supported the Western Balkan states in their development, pushed for a strategic approach towards the region, or were particularly active.
Policy towards the Balkans was a highlight for EU institutions in 2015, with the entry into force of the Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) with Bosnia and Herzegovina in June, the signing of an SAA with Kosovo in October, and the opening of the first two areas, or “chapters”, of EU accession talks with Serbia. The EU and Turkey also agreed in November to open talks on economic and monetary policy, another important development in accession negotiations. Montenegro opened six chapters in 2015.
The Commission’s department for trade (DG TRADE) facilitated trilateral negotiations with Ukraine and Russia on the implementation of the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) with Ukraine. DCFTAs with Georgia and Moldova were implemented during 2015, and the DCFTA with Moldova was extended to Transnistria in December.
The Commission’s department for energy (DG ENER) launched the Energy Union Framework Strategy in February, which represented an important step towards a single European energy market. In the same month, several member states set up a high-level Central Eastern and South Eastern Gas Connectivity working group, which aims to speed up the integration of gas markets in that region. The Eastern Partnership Platform on Energy Security was held in June; and the Commission facilitated trilateral talks on gas between Russia and Ukraine.
In May, the fourth Eastern Partnership summit was held in Riga, and the EEAS and the Commission presented the reviewed Eastern Neighbourhood Policy in November. Negotiations for a new agreement between Armenia and the EU were launched the following month, led by Mogherini.