When Eastern Partnership countries meets in Brussels for a summit on December 15, they do so while the Eastern flank of the Black Sea region is increasingly a hotspot for European security. This week, President Biden expressed his concerns to President Putin over Moscow’s recent troop build-up, which the international community considers a preparation for new aggressions against Ukraine. Previously, the Russian threats against Ukraine were a central matter at the NATO ministerial meeting in Riga and the OSCE ministerial council meeting in Stockholm. It will certainly be a central matter at the Brussels summit as well.
However, Ukraine is not the only battleground in the Black Sea region. Georgia is another victim of Russian aggression. Twenty percent of the country remains illegally occupied by Russia. The creeping occupation (or what Russia calls “borderization”), the kidnapping of peaceful civilians, torture, ethnic persecution of Georgians, and other violations of fundamental human rights have become the brutal reality for the population living on the occupation line and in occupied territories.
Moldova is also suffering from territorial problems, with Russia being the key perpetrator. Though the conflict in Moldova is not as serious as in Georgia – let alone Ukraine – Moscow uses other tools to leverage its influence over the country, including energy supply. Moldova’s recent gas crises sharply demonstrates how Russia weaponizes its energy exports, and should be yet another warning to Europe and those who back Nord Stream 2.
Importantly, Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova are not merely Black Sea or Eastern Partnership countries, but – unlike other EaP or regional states – also associated with the EU. All three of them have signed Association Agreements and DCFTAs with the EU, and are aspirants to join the EU in the future. Last July, the Associated Trio signed the Batumi Declaration, reaffirming the “unwavering commitment to advance further the process of their integration into the European Union through comprehensive reforms…” and to strengthen the trilateral cooperation among their countries “on European integration and reiterate the pledge to work together for the peaceful, democratic and prosperous European future for Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine”. (Batumi Summit Declaration, 2021).
Charles Michel, who attended the signing ceremony, called the Batumi Summit an “important milestone”, that “highlights the special ties that connect the EU with its Associated partners”. He highlighted that “three Association agreements, including the free trade areas….are among the most ambitious forms of cooperation that the EU has with any third country”. (European Council; July 19, 2021).
It is hard to overestimate the value of this cooperation – and, more generally, the role of the Black Sea region – for all-European security and welfare. Ukraine and Moldova have land borders with the EU. That connection along with the Association Agreements and the Free Trade Areas make those countries close and immediate partners to the EU. Ukraine is one of the largest European countries, with remarkable resources and economic potential, and is also an increasingly important aviation market for the EU (in 2019, Ukraine was the 13th largest extra-EU market with 9.8 million passengers). Passenger transport and cargo between Ukraine and the EU has been growing steadily in recent years. (European Commission; October 12, 2021).While Georgia has no land border with the EU, and may seem a bit distant, the Black Sea connects it with the rest of Europe and is a testament to the success of Europe’s ambition to deepen collaboration with the Black Sea region. Though Georgia is a small market economy of 3.7 million people, the country has free trade agreements with the EU, EFTA states, Turkey, China, Hong Kong, and CIS countries. Those factors along with country’s notable achievements – such as Georgia being ranked 7th out of 190 economies in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Index (World Bank, 2021) – make EU integration beneficial for both Georgia and its partners.
In trade, the EU, Georgia and Turkey have recently finalised new rules for diagonal cumulation, meaning that Georgian products with Turkish inputs can now be exported duty free to the EU under the Free Trade Agreement. Meanwhile, eight out of 14 Eurasian landlocked countries connect with Georgias seashore in the Black Sea. The “Oxygen Corridor” from the northern part of Georgia to the south is vital for East-West cooperation and guarantees European access to Caspian fossil resources. These resources are essential for the EU’s energy security, and the corridor provides interconnectivity between European and Asian markets and new routes for East-West transportation of goods and commodities. The TRACECA corridor, with the possible connection to the Danube River, as well as railway connection initiatives as “Zubr” and “Viking”, can transform the Black Sea region into the multifunctional infrastructural hub for both European and transcontinental cooperation.
Recently, that cooperation has increased in importance. Georgia and the EU are considering the cabling of high voltage transmission lines on the Black Sea floor to connect Georgia and EU energy systems. At the same time, the EU is interested to reinforce digital connections in the Black Sea region. Digital connectivity is one of the five priorities that the EU intends to fund in the upcoming years in Georgia.
Moreover, Georgia is a burden sharing partner in European efforts to improve international security. The country has made contributions to the international missions in Kosovo, Iraq, Central Africa, Mali and Afghanistan. Georgia has been the largest per capita contributor to the Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan. Currently, Georgia meets the NATO standard of allocating 2 percent of GDP to defence.
These examples add to the importance of the Black Sea and EU cooperation with the Associated Trio. It is obvious that “a Europe whole and free and in peace” is fully realizable only when the EU takes on board the Associated Trio. Frequently, the Black Sea is mistakenly considered a border of Europe, when in reality it is a European sea, which is surrounded by European nations: the EU from the west (Bulgaria, Romania), EU’s European neighbours (Associated Trio: Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine) from the north and west, and Turkey, a NATO ally. Therefore, even if the Eastern Partnership is not a ticker to EU membership, the EU should be more forthcoming in its leadership for the Black Sea region.
The Brussels summit next week could be a significant milestone. Today, the EU is not ready to make new political commitments for Eastern integration, and the Associated Trio still has some way to go before EU membership could become realistic. However, new steps for cooperation could and should be taken, and would demonstrate the long-term commitment of all sides to improve security and prosperity in the region. Such an ambition could include cooperation in higher education and better opportunities for student and scholar exchange, cooperation on the regulation of infrastructure and services (e.g. roaming regulations) and the launch of new projects/mini roadmaps for better sectoral integration.
Moreover, the EU could invite the Associated Trio into the Three Seas initiative – opening new opportunities for European business and fast-forwarding the development for the wider Europe. Such initiatives will serve as a strong political signal that EU is united and determined towards its European neighbours, and that it is ready to deliver “more for more”, to use the terminology from the Eastern Partnership inaugural declaration. What happens in the Black Sea region, doesn’t stay in the region – and, eventually, it will affect the EU. The EU doesn’t have the luxury to be passive. With Russia’s new aggressions towards Ukraine, the region needs Europe.
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