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News Analysis: EU Eastern Partnership Summit Exposes Fault Line Between Members

The president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker (right), and the president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, attend a final press conference at the end of the Riga summit on May 22.
The president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker (right), and the president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, attend a final press conference at the end of the Riga summit on May 22.

RIGA -- Unlike the previous EU Eastern Partnership summit in 2013, which triggered the Ukraine crisis after the country's ex-president scuttled a deal on closer ties with Brussels, the summit that wrapped up May 22 is unlikely to send such shock waves across the continent.

Instead, the meeting in the Latvian capital highlighted a new split in Europe, one that runs through the EU's six so-called "eastern partners" themselves.

On one side of this fault line are Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine, who have signed on with virtually everything proposed by the EU under the auspices of the Eastern Partnership program. These three ex-Soviet states' main complaints have been over what they see as Brussels' lack of ambition in pushing for their greater integration with the EU.

Standing on the other side are Belarus, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, who repeatedly grumbled in the run-up to and during the May 21-22 summit over wording on Russia's illegal annexation of Crimea and language on the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region, which lies at the heart of the standoff between Baku and Yerevan.

In one telling moment at the tail end of the summit, EU Council President Donald Tusk of Poland wanted to wrap up a sleepy plenary session of heads of government and endorse the summit's common declaration.

Azerbaijan's ambassador, however, objected. Baku would not sign the statement but gave no explanation.

Tusk proceeded to call the Azerbaijani foreign minister, who was at a separate meeting with Latvia's president, and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, who had stayed home. Baku ultimately agreed to the text after almost an hour's delay, bringing an end to the mini-drama.

Meanwhile, Belarus and Armenia, both of whom have close ties to Moscow and are members of the Kremlin-led Eurasian Economic Union, objected to language in the declaration concerning Russia's occupation of Crimea, which a majority of UN member nations have deemed illegal.

In the end, the declaration stated that the "EU" -- not the summit's participants -- considers Russia's annexation of Crimea "illegal." In the coming days, both Azerbaijan and Belarus may publish their own interpretations of the declaration even though they have signed on to it.

Meanwhile, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine also had qualms about the text, but only insofar as it lacked assurances about their greater integration into the EU, including language concerning visa-free travel to the EU's passport-free Schengen zone next year.

But on the interpretation of the events in Crimea and other issues, the three countries were in total lockstep with Brussels. "They want to be more European than the European Union members themselves," one EU diplomat said.

Questions were once again raised about whether it would make more sense merely to hold a summit with Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine, who have all signed an EU Association Agreement.

EU officials dismiss this, saying that the Eastern Partnership program isn't one-size-fits-all, but rather more like an a la carte menu from which the partners can pick and choose what sort of relationship they want to have with Brussels.

But arguments for a split will only grow stronger as the six partners increasingly appear to be breaking off into teams of three.

By the time the next Eastern Partnership summit rolls around in 2017 -- most likely in Brussels -- Ukrainians and Georgians may already be able to travel to the Belgian capital visa-free, as Moldovans already can. And these countries' markets may be integrated with the EU's

These are prospects that their other three eastern partners only can dream of.

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    Rikard Jozwiak

    Rikard Jozwiak is the Europe editor for RFE/RL in Prague, focusing on coverage of the European Union and NATO. He previously worked as RFE/RL’s Brussels correspondent, covering numerous international summits, European elections, and international court rulings. He has reported from most European capitals, as well as Central Asia.