A Foreign Perception of Foreign Policy: The EU through Armenian Eyes

Hrant Kostanyan
Fellow, Policy Forum Armenia

The European Union’s (EU) nature generally, and its ‘actorness’ in the Eastern neighborhood particularly, are often misunderstood by a large proportion of Armenian policy makers, the expert community, journalists and the general public. Both ‘traditional’ and online media further contribute to this misapprehension by interviewing incompetent analysts in both Brussels and Yerevan. The scope of this commentary does not permit the unveiling what the EU is or what it might do in Armenia and in the region at large. Rather, I aim to counter some existing myths about the EU that are circulating in Armenia, while reaffirming that increased interest in the EU enhances ‘socialization’ and encourages the further ‘Europeanization’ of Armenian society.

The major source of confusion about the EU is related to the distribution of formal and informal competences. To identify who is responsible for what in the EU external action’s conceptualization and implementation is as complex as loosening ‘the Gordian Knot.’ Who holds the power of shaping and making decisions? Which decision-making procedure is applicable? Who has the informational advantage or right of (exclusive) initiative? To varying degrees, inter alia the European Council, the Council of the EU, the Rotating Presidency, the European External Action Service (EEAS), the European Commission, and the European Parliament are all involved in EU external action.

Moreover, with each issue area, e.g. the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), trade, migration, energy and aid, the distribution of power within the EU shifts from one actor to another. Furthermore, when faced with ‘cross-policy’ issues, conducting the EU external action becomes even more complex since it threatens to open up a ‘Pandora’s box’ of various actors’ competences. The competition or ‘turf wars’ among involved actors further complicate the analysis. In addition, since the enactment of the Treaty of Lisbon (2009) and the establishment of the EEAS (2010), the EU is undergoing unprecedented transformation, which has led to further uncertainties in policy making that are expected to continue for years to come.

I tend to think that the lack of knowledge about these important dynamics accounts for why a resolution of the European Parliament concerning the South Caucasus is interpreted in Armenian media as a roadmap for the EU’s foreign policy. Although any resolution coming from the European Parliament is very important in terms of shining a spotlight on an issue, the Parliament has very limited formal competences in the CFSP. On the other hand, the European Parliament has been successful in strengthening its voice and pressuring the EU member states and institutions, inter alia through the use of mechanisms such as budgetary power (subject to co-decision) or putting questions to the EU foreign policy chief. Although the powers of the European Parliament are expected to increase, its current influence should not be overstated.

The roles of the European Commission in general, and of Štefan Füle, the Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy, in particular, are also often misrepresented. The European Commission remains a major actor in areas such as trade, aid and migration. However, in the current EU institutional architecture, the European Commission shares these responsibilities (except for trade) with the EEAS at the EU level and with the member states at the national level. For example, the European Commission currently does not have a Director-General (DG) for neighbourhood policy, which includes Armenia. Further, the Commissioner responsible for neighbourhood policy is assisted by the EEAS in this area. Moreover, with the enactment of the Lisbon Treaty, the Commission delegations became EU delegations, which has implications for the power distribution in the EU that are yet to be understood.

The EEAS is the most recent EU institutional innovation and is very much still in the making. Besides taking over several functions that were formerly carried out by the European Commission and the General Secretariat of the Council (GSC), and hosting national diplomats, the EEAS has also assumed the role of EU external representation in CFSP matters that was previously performed by the Rotating Presidency. This allows the EU to formulate a long-term policy.

Although the EEAS is supposed to become the epicenter of the EU foreign policy making, the service and its head, Catherine Ashton, are facing serious challenges. It is widely known that she and the EEAS act in the CFSP area after consulting the EU member state governments, which closely monitor sensitive and politicized issues in particular. EU foreign policy remains an intergovernmental affair, and decisions are mainly taken by unanimity. This means that in this issue area, the EU will act in Armenia, in the South Caucasus or elsewhere only when there is a consensus among all 27 EU member states.

The misrepresentation in the press is also related to Armenia’s contractual relationship with the EU. The Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) is the basis for the EU’s bilateral relationship with Armenia and not the basis for the Eastern Partnership. The latter is mainly multilateral frameworks of cooperation. This is why Belarus is included in the Eastern Partnership (and even in the European Neighbourhood policy) without ratification of the PCA. Moreover, the negotiations of the Association Agreement between the EU and Armenia are ongoing and the negotiations for the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) are set to follow that of the Association Agreement. However, it will take years before Armenia meets the preconditions to even begin the negotiations for DCFTA. Among all 6 Eastern Partnership countries, only Ukraine is close to signing the agreements. The next in line for negotiations are Moldova and possibly Georgia.

Those unjustifiably raising expectations among the Armenian public should understand that the DG Trade of the European Commission, which is responsible for negotiations, is trying to postpone starting DCFTA negotiations with the rest of the Eastern Partnership countries. These negotiations require a lot of time and resources, and countries like Armenia are ‘insignificant’ for the EU in terms of trade. Moreover, for decades there has been tension between the EU institutions responsible for the political side of external policies and trade. These tensions are aggravated now by the recent institutional changes, which are expected to further slow down the process.

More importantly, an analyst recently went so far as to suggest that the OCSE Minsk Group will leave the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process after the signing the Madrid Principles, adding that in the face of Russia’s failure to find a solution to the conflict, the EU will take over the peace process. Those making such claims should understand that Russia is there to stay and the Madrid Principles might not be signed for years to come. Even suggestions that the EU might replace France in the Minsk Group are not expected to materialize. Those presenting the EU’s ‘takeover’ of peacekeeping operations in Nagorno-Karabakh as a pragmatic option must also understand that the EU does not have an army and that peacekeeping contributions are voluntarily made by the EU member states. The member states have limited resources, lack necessary interest, are reluctant to operate in the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) framework, and are currently stretched thin due to other ongoing obligations.

A few weeks ago, I listened to an analyst on television who is considered to be a leading expert in EU affairs in Armenia, describing the capabilities of the EU ‘rapid reaction force’ to the public and why and how it can assume peacekeeping operations in Nagorno-Karabakh. I was amazed that the expert neglected to mention that the EU ‘rapid reaction force,’ both in the form of ‘Headline goals’ or the ‘Battlegroup concept,’ have never actually been deployed, yet he presented it as a feasible option for Nagorno-Karabakh.

The expectations of the Armenian public have also been unjustifiably raised regarding the upcoming Eastern Partnership Summit. Before the summer holidays, I was present at the conference about preparations of the summit where the panel included Štefan Füle and Radosław Sikorski. Armenia was mentioned only once while naming the Eastern Partnership countries. It is my understanding that the summit will focus mainly on Ukraine, which is the only country that could be presented as a success story, considering that it may sign an Association Agreement with the DCFTA.

The majority of those analyzing EU policies towards Armenia should certainly revisit their methodology. There is a large gap between rhetoric and reality in EU foreign policy, and overreliance on EU documents, statements or demarches often makes their assessments incorrect. The EU is constantly upgrading the language of its external policies, but the substance of these policies rarely changes drastically, thus causing the ‘expectations-capability gap.’

Finally, the EU is currently preoccupied with the economic crisis and the large debt of some member states; a crisis that threatens the very existence of the monetary union. In the field of foreign policy, given the turmoil in North Africa and the Arab world, it is expected that the EU will continue to focus considerable resources and energy on its Southern neighborhood for years to come. There will therefore be some increase in the EU’s activities in its Eastern neighborhood but one should not expect a revolution.


Hrant Kostanyan is a visiting fellow at the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS), an expert at the European Neighbourhood Policy Instrument (ENPI) Info Centre and a PhD candidate in political science (EU studies) at Ghent University, Belgium.

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