Azerbaijan should sign Eastern Partnership project with EU only after clear position on Karabakh

Fuad Muxtarlı Analysis 18 May 2018
Azerbaijan should sign Eastern Partnership project with EU only after clear position on Karabakh

The next round of negotiations on the new Azerbaijan-EU agreement will be held in Baku on May 29-30, the press service of the EU representation in Azerbaijan said.

Azerbaijan is a fair player in both bilateral and unilateral relations and has always chosen partners that back its territorial integrity and adhere to the principles of mutual respect. We recognize that for Azerbaijan in relations with the EU, the priority is not so much the economy and energy as geopolitics, in particular, the Karabakh settlement.

The expected Eastern Partnership agreement with the EU must necessarily contain a clear position of Brussels on the Karabakh conflict. Official Baku rightfully urges Brussels to unambiguously and unequivocally express its position with regard to Armenia's aggression against Azerbaijan and condemn the occupation, as well as call for the de-occupation of the occupied Azerbaijani lands. By the way, this will correspond to the policy of good neighbourliness of the EU.

What kind of a policy of good-neighbourliness can we talk about now, when one Eastern Partnership member country occupies the territories of another member country of this project? If this political gap is not eliminated, then the EU will undoubtedly fail in its policy of good-neighbourliness, as it will become clear that Norica Nicolai, European Union rapporteur's statements on the Eastern Partnership are nothing more than an attempt to strengthen the geopolitical presence of the United States and the EU in the South Caucasus.

In its recommendation, the EU calls for a peaceful solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the position Azerbaijan has always approved of, though the occupier has so far managed to mislead both international organizations and peace brokers operating under the OSCE Minsk Group.
The EU participation in peacefully solving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict should be enhanced, MEPs say underlining that new deals between the EU and each of the parties to this conflict must be made conditional on meaningful commitments to and substantial progress towards the peaceful resolution of the conflict, a recommendation reads.

EU recommendations for Azerbaijan

Ahead of the Baku meeting, the foreign affairs MEPs came up with a set of recommendations, described as an ultimatum-like manner by Azerbaijani independent Novoye Vremya newspaper, demanded that Azerbaijan to respect European values.

In their recommendation on the negotiations on the EU-Azerbaijan Comprehensive Agreement, passed by 56 votes to 2, with 7 abstentions, Foreign Affairs MEPs call on the EU Council, Commission and External Action Service to:

“ensure that the deepening of EU-Azerbaijan relations is conditional on upholding and respecting democracy, rule of law, good governance, human rights and fundamental freedoms;

“remind the Azerbaijani authorities that no comprehensive agreement will be ratified with a country that does not respect fundamental EU values and rights;

“guarantee that the future deal with Azerbaijan is ambitious, comprehensive, and will deliver benefits to both sides;

“put in place specific provisions to support Azerbaijan in fighting economic crime including corruption, money laundering and tax evasion and back investigations into laundering schemes notably the “Laundromat” affair;

“ensure, before the conclusion of the negotiations, that Azerbaijan takes significant steps as regards the release of political prisoners and prisoners of conscience;

“further support free and pluralistic media in Azerbaijan with editorial independence from dominant political and oligarchic groups and in line with EU standards”

Parliament’s rapporteur Norica Nicolai (ALDE, RO) said: "We face today the reality of seeing the EU borders more and more insecure, therefore a good dialogue and cooperation within the Eastern Partnership including Azerbaijan becomes essential. An honest and trustful relationship between the representatives of EU and Azerbaijan will bring economic benefits to both sides and can assure the consolidation of the democracy in this area."

Can Azerbaijan do without the EU?

The commission advised the EU to sign the new agreement with Azerbaijan after the whole list of requirements is fulfilled by Azerbaijan. However, the European Parliament, like the EU as a whole, is not in a position to put forward preconditions for signing this document.

Today the bilateral relations between the EU and Azerbaijan are regulated on the basis of an agreement on partnership and cooperation, which was signed in 1996 and entered into force in 1999. It needs to be made clear that Azerbaijan can fully do without a new agreement with the EU. Moreover, it is still not known how much this agreement will differ from the old document, which was not quite satisfied with Azerbaijan. It is the EU that forces the signing of a new agreement for understandable reasons.

Maintaining high level of relations with Azerbaijan is extremely important for the EU, Norica Nicolai, European Union rapporteur for the comprehensive agreement between the EU and Azerbaijan, said in an interview with Euroactiv. The rapporteur of the European Parliament noted that improving the level of relations between Azerbaijan and the EU is good for both sides.

"For the EU, this is especially good, given that many European companies operate in Azerbaijan. I believe that at the moment, we must support the Eastern Partnership program. We need to pay attention to what unites us, not what separates us," Nicolai said.

The rapporteur of the European Parliament noted that if the Eastern Partnership does not include countries like Azerbaijan, Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova, the EU risks failing in its policy of good-neighbourliness. "If we are not close with our eastern partners, we risk being isolated from the world," added Nicolai.

As we see, Europe is more interested in signing the agreement. On the one hand, the new agreement guarantees Azerbaijan's participation in the Eastern Partnership project, and on the other, through the new agreement, the EU and the U.S. will strengthen their geopolitical and military presence in the region.

After the power change in Ukraine, which was triggered by Kiev's refusal to sign associative agreements with the EU, the Eastern Partnership program, like other EU projects, was on the verge of collapse. For a long time, no meetings were held within the framework of this program. Most of the members of the partnership feared the arrogant intervention of Washington and Brussels in the internal affairs of these countries. It was necessary to somehow reanimate this project. The desire to sign new agreements with Azerbaijan and Armenia served these purposes. The last summit of the Eastern Partnership, held in November 2017 in Brussels, also had to convince everyone of the viability of this project.

Norica Nicolai also advertises the Eastern Partnership program. However, it is still unknown about the mutually beneficial cooperation she talks about. Unfortunately, little information is provided on the results of the talks between the representatives of the EU and Azerbaijan. If the rapporteur of the European Parliament sees the benefit in the agreement for the European companies operating in Azerbaijan, then a specific benefit for Azerbaijan is not yet visible.

Will EU open markets for Azerbaijani products?

At the talks, as already was reported, there are discussions on the export of Azerbaijani products to European markets. However, it does not go further than talking. Of course, the access of our goods to the markets of Europe could be considered progress in the negotiations. But hopes are low that the EU will open its markets for Azerbaijani products. The export issue for Brussels is much more important than the import issue.

As for the simplification of the visa regime between Azerbaijan and the EU, this is not very important, given some moments of the visa-free agreement between the EU and Ukraine, as well as the EU with Georgia. We should not forget that access of our products to the European markets can negatively affect the export of Azerbaijani products to neighboring countries.