Welcome to Wider Europe, RFE/RL’s newsletter focusing on the key issues concerning the European Union, NATO, and other institutions and their relationships with the Western Balkans and Europe’s Eastern neighborhoods.
I’m RFE/RL Europe Editor Rikard Jozwiak, and this week I’m drilling down on Brussels’ proposal for another round of sanctions on Russia and looking at what’s left of the Eastern Partnership.
Brief #1: Can The EU Agree On More Russia Sanctions?
What You Need To Know: The European Commission presented a new Russia sanctions package in mid-November — the 12th since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. The hope in Brussels is that the 27 EU member states will sign off on the package by the end of the year, preferably ahead of or at the EU summit in Brussels on December 14-15.
At first sight, getting a green light looks possible, considering there is still time. There have already been a few rounds of discussions among high-level diplomats, and the sanctions package isn’t perhaps the most controversial of proposals. It doesn’t, for example, hit the Russian gas or nuclear sectors.
Yet, it took nearly seven weeks for the member states to agree on the 11th sanctions package back in the summer, and those measures were equally unambitious. The ongoing issue is that certain member states want to water down the proposals, claiming that the sanctions hurt their economies more than Russia’s.
For example, Slovakia has asked to extend the exemption that it and other landlocked countries were given, meaning the country could continue importing Russian oil via pipeline until the end of 2025. Germany is also keen to get an exemption on the ban on Russian vehicles entering the bloc and the Czech Republic wants to be able to import Russian steel until 2028. All these measures were already agreed in previous sanctions packages — and the exemptions that has been sought could very well be agreed again.
Deep Background: Exemptions aren’t the biggest threat to the deal. Predictably it is Hungary, which has questioned the EU’s sanctions regime on Russia from the very start. Diplomats I have spoken to on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak on the record say they believe that Budapest will block the new deal in order to gain leverage on the European Commission releasing 13 billion euros ($14.2 billion) of EU funds so far held by Brussels over Hungary’s backsliding on the rule of law.
In a recent letter, seen by RFE/RL, addressed to European Council President Charles Michel, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban asks for a “strategic discussion” on the EU’s approach to Ukraine in a number of fields — not only Russia sanctions but also financial aid to Kyiv and the country’s potential EU accession. The letter notes that “the European Council is not in a position to make key decisions on the proposed security guarantees or additional financial support for Ukraine, endorse further strengthening of the sanctions regime or agree on the future of the enlargement process unless a consensus on our future strategy towards Ukraine is found.”
Specifically on sanctions, the letter notes that “we must also have a clear view [of] what the European Union has actually done to mitigate the obvious adverse effects of the sanctions on individual member states.” Everything is essentially coming to a head, ready for those last critical weeks before Christmas.
- So, what is actually in the sanctions package? The top line is probably the proposed ban on Russian diamonds, something that many EU member states have pushed for. Belgium, however, with its diamond-trading hub of Antwerp had pushed back on this — until now.
- If approved, the ban would apply to both Russian natural diamonds and diamond jewelry from January 1, 2024. Then, starting on March 1 and with the aim of being completed by September, there will be an indirect import ban of processed Russian diamonds, meaning stones that have been cut or polished in third countries. For this, the Group of Seven (G7) leading industrial nations will have to come up with a workable global traceability mechanism, something that Belgium has asked for in order for its sign-off on the diamond ban. There will also be an EU import ban on Russian copper, aluminum wire and foil, as well as Russian liquefied petroleum gas (LPG).
- The export ban has been further widened to include EU companies providing cryptocurrency wallets. The mostly digital applications, used to store cryptocurrency keys, can also be used for the design and manufacture of certain dual-use goods, which can have both a civilian and military purpose, such as lithium batteries and thermostats for drones.
- While not touching the actual price cap on Russian oil set late last year in conjunction with the G7 at $60 per barrel, the latest sanctions proposal introduces tougher financial reporting requirements that extra costs, such as for insurance and freight, must be declared, as regulators fear such extras are being inflated as a way of creating more revenue for Russia.
- And in order to try to thwart Russia’s “shadow fleet” — unlicensed vessels carrying and selling Russian oil above the price cap — the European Commission will now ask member states to notify the competent authorities of any sale or export of tankers concluded since 2022. Both this measure and the one concerning more detailed financial reporting, however, could be watered down by EU maritime nations fearing too much red tape.
- Perhaps the most interesting part of this latest sanctions proposal — and one that will almost certainly be softened — is a requirement for the EU subsidiaries of Russian companies to transfer all their funds either back to Russia or to a third country. Firstly, it is not an outright ban, which is important to note; and secondly, there are exemptions to ensure critical energy supplies are not interrupted — so, for example, the subsidiaries of Russian gas companies would likely be spared. But it could affect other EU subsidiaries, making it much harder for them to survive.
- As always in these packages, there are also 48 people and 73 entities that the bloc wants to slap visa bans and asset freezes on — adding to a list that already consists of over 1,800 names in total. Included on the new one are several high-ranking Belarusian military officials; Rady Khabirov, the head of the Russian republic of Bashkortostan; Viktor Afzalov, the commander of the Russian Air Force; and Putin’s cousin, Anna Tsivileva.
- Interestingly, there is also a proposal to keep dead people on the sanctions list. Normally, a deceased person is removed, but Brussels is hoping that an asset freeze can remain, as funds can still be generated to financially aid Russia’s war in Ukraine. (For obvious reasons in such cases, there will be no more need for a visa ban.)
Brief #2: The Eastern Partnership Is Still Hobbling Along
What You Need To Know: Perhaps it was the zenith of the European Union’s Eastern Partnership. It was the end of November 2013 in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, and EU leaders were gathering for a high-level summit together with their counterparts from the bloc’s six eastern neighbors: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus (represented by then-Foreign Minister Uladzimer Makei as authoritarian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka was persona non grata), Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine.
The latter trio was supposed to initial association agreements with the EU that would bring them closer to the bloc. The international press was out in force at the conference center, not for the Georgian or Moldovan leaders but to see whether Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych would sign the association agreement. There had been reports the evening before saying he wouldn’t sign, which turned out to be exactly what happened.
Meanwhile, more and more protesters had gathered in Kyiv, angry that the Ukrainian government appeared to prefer closer ties with Moscow than the European Union. The next day, riot police dispersed the crowd, which reoccupied the square shortly afterward. The protest, later known as “Euromaidan,” eventually forced Yanukovych to step down and flee to Russia.
Deep Background: Exactly a decade later, on November 28-29, I was back in the Lithuanian capital to participate in a seminar that dealt with the future of the Eastern Partnership. The key takeaway was that, in many ways, the Eastern Partnership had been a victim of its own success.
The partnership was created after a Polish-Swedish initiative in 2009 and had the goal of bringing the six former Soviet republics closer to the EU but not putting them on the same accession path as, say, Turkey or the countries of the Western Balkans. Wary of antagonizing Russia and the growing enlargement fatigue in the bloc, Brussels chose an easier, softer path — the Eastern Partnership.
In the end, despite the initial intentions, half of the Eastern partners did follow that traditional route, in the sense of moving along an accession pathway. Following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Moldova and Ukraine became official EU candidate countries and, if EU member states agree in the coming weeks, will start EU accession negotiations next year. Georgia, one step behind the other two, is set to become an official candidate country by the end of 2023. Those three countries have all gone beyond what was promised by the Eastern Partnership.
- The question then is whether the format has outlived its purpose. Officials from Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia, all speaking on background, told me that they don’t like to be grouped with the other three Eastern Partnership countries — Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Belarus. While they are all publicly positive about the Eastern Partnership, the more advanced candidates can see less need for the initiative these days, because, to their minds, the only thing that unites them now is a Soviet past.
- Armenia, which is making moves away from Moscow but is not yet ready to apply for EU membership, might be the keenest of the six to keep the partnership going. Azerbaijan still prefers bilateral deals with Brussels, notably in the energy sector; and Belarus unilaterally pulled out of the framework in 2021, after its standoff with the EU following the presidential election in 2020, which was widely seen as rigged, and the subsequent crackdown on civil society and opposition in the country.
- Possibly the biggest sign that the Eastern Partnership is in decline is that there hasn’t been a high-level summit for two years now. Normally, the EU would hold a summit every other year, and Sweden, which held the six-month rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union earlier this year, was approached. However, Stockholm — which co-conceived the whole idea of the partnership in the first place — declined the offer, with Swedish diplomats telling me that there wouldn’t be any deliverables.
- There has been talk in Brussels that Poland, the other co-founder of the Eastern Partnership, is keen to host a summit when they have the presidency of the Council of the European Union in the first half of 2025. But the question is if the six partners are keen and if it won’t end up being another “box-ticking exercise,” as some diplomats fear.
- That was what essentially happened at the last summit, held in Brussels in December 2021. There was a working session that lasted a couple of hours and then a short working dinner. Then the whole thing was over with minimal fuss. Looking at the summit declaration, there was no mention of Russia whatsoever. Nor were there any specific lines dedicated to any of the many frozen or hot conflicts in the territories of the eastern partners. Looking back at media reports from the time, most of the focus was given to Belarus’s empty chair and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy trying to cajole EU leaders into adopting sanctions on Russia immediately, due to the build-up of Russian troops on the border with Ukraine.
- What holds the Eastern Partnership together, other than just a bureaucratic reluctance to kill it off? Some point to the fact that the foreign ministers of the five current members will meet their EU counterparts in Brussels on December 11 with the hope of agreeing on a cell-phone roaming zone among the five countries that would eventually be extended to the EU. So, there is that.
- The Eastern Partnership will probably hobble on for a while. The framework has already borne fruit, with increased cooperation between the EU and partner countries, particularly in the energy sector. The more sanguine diplomats and EU officials see other areas, such as security, that can be explored further.
On December 7-8, the presidents of the European Council and the European Commission, Charles Michel and Ursula von der Leyen, respectively, will head to Beijing for the EU-China summit. Expect the EU to ask for China to play a more constructive role in the Ukraine war, notably by pressuring Russia on abducted Ukrainian children or prisoner exchanges, as well as taking a harder line on sanctions circumvention. In return, Beijing will likely ask the EU for more cooperation on research and development and for an increase in trade between the two sides.
EU interior ministers assemble in Brussels on December 5. One of the items on the agenda is whether a green light can finally be given to Bulgaria and Romania to join the visa-free Schengen zone. It is expected that the pair will be disappointed once again. Some EU officials, speaking on condition of anonymity as they weren’t authorized to speak on the record, were annoyed that the Bulgaria and Romania request was even on the agenda, especially as one of the key opponents, the Netherlands, doesn’t have a functioning government yet after Geert Wilder’s far-right party got the most seats in recent parliamentary elections.
That’s all for this week. Feel free to reach out to me on any of these issues on Twitter @RikardJozwiak, or on e-mail at [email protected].
Until next time,
If you enjoyed this briefing and don’t want to miss the next edition, subscribe here