EU Reaches Out to Its Eastern Neighbors, but With Caution This Time

The European Union is trying to extend a hand eastward without overreaching.

Four years ago, at an EU summit with leaders from the bloc's eastern neighbors, the president of Ukraine's sudden refusal to sign a sweeping trade deal with the EU triggered protests at home that toppled the government and sparked the Ukraine crisis.

This year's "Eastern Partnership" summit, held in Brussels on Friday, was crafted to avoid such drama by scaling back the EU's eastern ambitions.

The EU faces sobering challenges with its three closest eastern allies -- Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia -- but bright spots have emerged in recent years. Each nation has signed major economic and political pacts with the EU. The bloc extended visa-free access for their citizens and provided or pledged to provide billions in economic assistance, including a multiyear EUR12.8 billion ($15.7 billion) support package for Ukraine.

Brussels is also working to improve ties with Belarus, Armenia and Azerbaijan, the first two of which are members of the Russia-dominated economic bloc, the Eurasian Economic Union. The EU is focusing on encouraging trade and giving its eastern partners extra leverage with the Kremlin.

Outreach to eastern neighbors wins broad support from EU members across the bloc, even as they disagree on many other issues.

"We can't change the geography of Europe, so we have to take note of possible Russian influence and to shape our policies in a way that allows our partners to develop in a positive and reasonable manner," Romanian President Klaus Iohannis said Friday.

Since the February 2014 fall of former President Viktor Yanukovych's government in Ukraine, there have been vast economic and human costs from Ukraine's clash with Russia. The country's economy was pummeled by the conflict in its east with Russian-backed separatists.

Still, EU trade ties with Ukraine have blossomed. Ukrainian exports to the EU grew 27% between January and August compared with the year-earlier period.

European leaders have urged Ukraine to make progress on peace talks over territories held by Russian-backed separatists, though the bloc still supports President Petro Poroshenko. It shows no signs of easing Russia sanctions, imposed because of Moscow's Ukraine interference. The EU nevertheless has criticized the pace of Ukraine's reform and anticorruption efforts.

On Friday, EU leaders again dashed Ukraine's hopes of opening a door to accession talks. The summit statement merely acknowledged its eastern neighbors' "European aspirations and European choice."

"The issue today is not enlargement," said European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.

The EU has meanwhile set modest goals for ties with Armenia, Azerbaijan and Belarus.

Armenia signed an EU partnership agreement Friday that deepens cooperation in energy, transport and trade. Yet the pact is a far cry from the association accord the EU spent years negotiating with Armenia, only to see it ripped up in 2013, days before Armenia announced it would join the Eurasian Economic Union. Unlike the original pact, the new agreement contains nothing that will complicate Armenia's membership of that club.

Similarly, EU diplomats now say its "eastern partnership" isn't aimed at forcing countries into a "binary choice" between Moscow and Brussels.

Russia had increased pressure on Armenia, including through arms sales to neighboring Azerbaijan. The two countries are in a long-running territorial dispute that flared again last year.

Azerbaijan is an authoritarian country that depends on oil exports and hundreds of millions of dollars in remittances from migrant workers in Russia. The EU has hoped to tap Azerbaijan's natural-gas wealth to reduce the bloc's dependence on Russia for that fuel.

Belarus, a country of some 9.5 million people ruled for 23 years by the authoritarian President Aleksander Lukashenko, is Russia's closest ally. Its economy relies on cheap Russian energy imports, and the countries' armies carried out joint military exercises in Belarus in September.

Still, Mr. Lukashenko has for years flirted with the West, in what European diplomats say are efforts to extract more economic concessions from Russia. He reacted angrily this year to new border checks set up by Russia in response to Belarus's easing some visa requirements for dozens of countries, including the U.S. and EU member states.

The EU last year dropped most sanctions on Belarus and Mr. Lukashenko, and EU diplomats had expected Mr. Lukashenko at the summit. Instead, he sent his foreign minister.

--Valentina Pop in Brussels contributed to this article.

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

November 24, 2017 14:37 ET (19:37 GMT)