Azerbaijan-EU Strategic Partnership Deal: No Light At The End Of The Tunnel Yet

Fuad Muxtarlı Analysis 2 September 2019
Azerbaijan-EU Strategic Partnership Deal: No Light At The End Of The Tunnel Yet

Azerbaijan and the European Union have not yet signed a new strategic partnership agreement despite optimism top officials from Baku and Brussels have expressed to successfully complete the long-drawn-out preparations for the signing of the deal.

Remarks made by Brussels and Azerbaijani officials indicate that the parties cannot agree on matters of crucial national importance for Azerbaijan. According to insiders, Azerbaijan’s major concerns are related to its territorial integrity, whereas the EU is believed to be more concerned about economic aspect of the deal in the pipeline.

The EU’s relations with Azerbaijan are based on the EU-Azerbaijan Partnership and Cooperation Agreement from 1999. In February 2017, talks began on a new framework agreement. Its conclusion is near, but a few outstanding issues remain, sources in the EU say.

The Juncker Commission still hopes that it could conclude a new trade and political agreement with Azerbaijan in the next two months, provided that Baku moves forward on the trade part of the text.

Back in October 2018, Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov hoped the agreement could be initialled during the term of the present EU Commission, which is set to end on 1 November.

Speaking to the press after the 16th EU-Azerbaijan Cooperation Council in April, the EU’s diplomacy chief, Federica Mogherini, said Brussels and Baku were in “the final, crucial phase” of talks on the “new, ambitious bilateral agreement”. However, as time went on, the chance that this goal would not be attained has become increasingly realistic.

Baku reportedly blames the EU’s short-sightedness, while stressing its undoubtedly important stabilizing role in the region, as well as its contribution for the energy security in the EU. The Southern Gas Corridor is the only tangible project to bring pipeline gas from the East from a source other than Russia.

Azerbaijan also feels offended that the EU was able to conclude a new generation of agreements with countries that Baku sees as having less geostrategic importance and which maintain closer relations with Russia, such as Armenia.

Conversely, the EU regrets the lack of understanding by Azerbaijan that a new agreement must necessarily include a strong economic chapter. The country is not a World Trade Organisation member and, as seen by Brussels, does not have a serious ambition to join it. This reportedly makes it much more difficult to advance on the trade chapter.

“Azerbaijan is interested to conclude the new trade and political agreement, but it doesn’t want to pay the price”, a Commission source said. The source repeated that the ball was in Baku’s court and that the Commission was prepared to do its part of the work, provided that Baku “puts acts behind words”.

As the Commission source said, Baku found it difficult to move forward each time that the EU executive made mention of the rules of an open market economy.

Azerbaijan’s economy is heavily based on oil and gas. “Everything which is not hydrocarbons is very under-developed”, the source said and explained that part of the difficulty was that “some of the country’s ministers were more interested than others” in reaching an agreement with the EU.

However, the source was clearly optimistic that an agreement was still possible during this commission’s term, before 1 November.

“It’s doable: a few sleepless nights and we can have it,” the source said, repeating that the ball was in Baku’s court. The next round of talks will take place in September.

What is obvious now nothing is ready for signing and the European Commission still hopes for speedy progress on this issue without taking into consideration Baku’s key concerns.

The new agreement should replace the partnership and cooperation agreement of 1996, which will allow more consideration of the common goals and problems that the EU and Azerbaijan are facing today.

The agreement is to meet the principles approved in the 2015 document of the Institute for European Neighborhood Policy, and to offer an updated basis for political dialogue and mutually beneficial cooperation between the EU and Azerbaijan.

Apparently, the outgoing European Commission, having signed this document, wants to slam the door loudly. But if the fact of signing the agreement is important for the European Commission in order to attribute it to its merits, then Azerbaijan does not need to run ahead of the steam locomotive. The fact is that over the entire period of the Azerbaijan-EU negotiations, the main points have not been fully agreed. Even the aviation agreement has not been signed.

Each of the parties is trying to “squeeze” the maximum benefit out of this agreement for itself. So far, mutually beneficial cooperation in this area has not been observed. And therefore it seems impossible to sign the issues discussed more than once.

A similar situation arises in the negotiations and the trade agreement. It also seemed to be about to be signed, but everything was stalled at the stage of providing benefits for Azerbaijani goods on the European market. Although EU negotiators have repeatedly and publicly expressed that the topic of opening EU markets will not become a stumbling block, no tangible progress has been made.

Why did they quickly change their minds in Brussels? The answer to this question lies on the surface. European politicians do not want to let strangers enter their market. As such, they consider everyone, including those with whom new partnership agreements and associative agreements are signed.

Just the other day, Switzerland recognized Georgia as a safe country for the repatriation of asylum seekers. This is done in order to limit the flow of migration from Georgia to Switzerland. Recall that asylum applications from Georgia to Switzerland began to flow in when a visa-free agreement was signed.

The visa-free regime granted to Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova under associative agreements is a crude, non-binding document. The decision of Switzerland is evidence of this. And this is just the beginning. Repatriation will also affect citizens of other countries who have signed a visa-free travel regime with the European Union.

As we recall, it was Brussels who boasted of a visa-free visa regime, and all of the above three countries sincerely enjoyed this event as a child. But the joy was short-lived. In other words, the EU cannot be trusted unconditionally as it proceeds from pure interests of own club members and consequently, Baku should not rush to signing the new EU-Azerbaijan agreement.

We should understand that this document is, first of all, in line with the national interests of Azerbaijan. But it should be recognized that this document, in principle, cannot meet our interests if the EU simultaneously signs a similar agreement with Armenia, which occupied 20 percent of the territory of Azerbaijan.

But Brussels does not react to this aggression, keeping mum. Brussels in word declares support for the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan, but the EU does not want to include in the agreement a clause that will openly say about aggression against Azerbaijan, about condemning this aggression and the need for the withdrawal of the occupation forces.

A fair Karabakh settlement is the most important issue for Azerbaijan, including in the context of signing an agreement with the EU. And if Brussels does not put a penny on Azerbaijan’s interests in this main issue, a reasonable question arises: is it worth for Baku to sign such an agreement?

To be completely honest, we must admit that the European Union has long lost its former attractiveness. Europe and the West as a whole are collapsing. In the light of Macron's remarks about the end of the era of Western dominance, these statements sound very helpful. These facts should be taken into account when building relations with the Western community. This also applies to Azerbaijan.