BRUSSELS -- The European Parliament has called for greater EU involvement in the South Caucasus, including in efforts to resolve the region's frozen conflicts,
The call came in a nonbinding report adopted by the parliament, which underscores the European Union's vast potential in advancing stability and prosperity -- as well as its own interests -- in Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan.
But the EU enlargement and neighborhood commissioner, Stefan Fuele, addressing the EU assembly in Strasbourg today, made it clear the bloc will continue to advance cautiously and warned the three countries they must reform to merit further outreach efforts.
The region, sandwiched between Russia, Turkey, and Iran, is situated on a vital geopolitical crossroads. It straddles a strategically crucial energy link for the EU.
As the European Parliament's rapporteur on the South Caucasus, Evgeni Kirilov, repeatedly stressed, multiple EU interests are at stake in the region.
"The South Caucasus is not only a region in the immediate neighborhood of the European Union -- Romania and Bulgaria have a sea border with it," Kirilov said, "but a region of great strategic importance for the union in the political, economic, and security aspects."
The EU, Kirilov said, needed to develop a strategy to supplement its "soft power" with a "firm approach" to the region.
More Of The Same
But Kirilov's detailed report -- which was approved by the parliament today -- will have little if any practical impact on EU policy. EU member states retain full sovereignty on foreign-policy issues and as their interests clash, the region's strategic importance has paradoxically served to stymie the bloc's ambitions there.
This was once again made clear by Enlargement and Neighborhood Commissioner Fuele. Fuele said the EU will stick with its existing "good strategy" and "policy instruments," the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP) and the Eastern Partnership project.
The ENP celebrated its fifth anniversary last week and the Eastern Partnership has stalled due to waning interest in the project both in the region and the EU itself.
Fuele effectively ruled out short-term adjustment to existing policies. He said the bloc's executive. the European Commission, is carrying out consultations with the member states, as well as the European Parliament, to see if it has in place "the right tools and allocations, and if it's going in the right direction."
Based on the results of these soundings, the EU next year could tweak the ENP's package -- comprising run-of-the-mill assistance and support for reforms -- and make a better case for an increase in funds in the next budgetary cycle between 2014 and 2020.
Meanwhile, the bloc will pursue association-agreement talks with Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, approved by member states on May 10. These would entail no steps toward political integration, but could eventually yield the countries free-trade agreements and visa-free travel with the European Union.Calls For Reform
EU engagement and incentives, Fuele stressed, will remain conditional on the reform commitment of the governments of the three countries.
"The commitment of our South Caucasus partners to approximation with Europe needs to be translated into further progress towards democracy, market economy, and political stability on the ground," Fuele said. "I thus call on Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia to move forward in their efforts towards modern, inclusive, pluralistic, democratic, and prosperous society; at peace with their neighbors."
The parliament's report urges the EU to adopt a more active posture in resolving the region's frozen conflicts, which cast a "shadow" over it. Kirilov today noted that it took the 2008 Russian-Georgia war to jolt the EU into paying more attention to the conflicts.
Kirilov said the bloc must now become involved in Nagorno-Karabakh, where it has so far deferred to the Minsk Group mediators of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe -- France, Russia, and the United States.
"There is a need for the union to lead the international efforts for rehabilitation and reconstruction in this conflict area by initiating reconciliation projects, people-to-people programs and contacts, and by sending a mission to the region once a political solution is found," Fuele said.
There were complaints from some European Parliament members today that the report was not tough enough on Turkey in its analysis of the causes of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict involving Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Kirilov also pointed to the EU's new Lisbon Treaty, which ostensibly gives the bloc greater latitude in pursuing a joint foreign policy. But as EU officials, Fuele among them, have already made plain, the so-called Lisbon foreign-policy mechanisms only amount to better coordination of the work already being done by the European Commission and the various EU special representatives who are answerable to the member states.
The report offers some comfort to Georgia, as both the center-right European People's Party and the center-left Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats -- the two largest political groups -- backed a description of the situation in the Georgian breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as a de facto Russian "occupation."
Finally, the report takes a pronouncedly dim view of the situation of media freedom in the three countries. It criticizes Armenia for the jailing of opposition activist and journalist Nikol Pashinian, as well as Azerbaijan for the jailing of two youth activists and bloggers, Emin Milli and Adnan Hajizada. Georgia is asked to provide "clarifications" on media ownership and licensing regulations.