How to Avoid Hitting an Iron Ceiling in the Relationship with the EU?

On November 19, 2018, Press Club and Nashe Mnenie (Our Opinion) website of the expert community of Belarus held a scheduled meeting of the Expert and Analytical Club on “How to Avoid Hitting an Iron Ceiling in the Relationship with the EU?”

Attending the discussion were representatives of the expert community, journalists, diplomats, and representatives of the state administration. This time, the keynote speakers included the coordinator of the Foreign Policy of Belarus program of the Minsk Dialogue expert initiative, Dzianis Melyantsou, and the editor of the Nashe Mnenie website of the expert community, Valeria Kostyugova.

The participants were invited to answer the following questions: 1. What does Belarus expect from the EU, which expectations are realistic, and which are illusory? 2. How do the Belarusian authorities see and interpret the objectives of the EU in cooperation with Belarus? 3. How and why does the EU perceive Belarus’s domestic policy and justify the pressure on the media, political parties and civil society organizations?

The discussion started with a debate about the wording of the topic, because, in a sense, the ceiling in the relationship between the EU and Belarus has already been achieved. It was noted that the following two months were crucial and fateful for the bilateral framework. Unless agreement has been reached on the partnership priorities during that period, a phase of uncertainty will commence.

The reason for the so-called ‘ceiling’ in the relationship is the negotiations over the visa facilitation and readmission agreement, as well as the partnership priorities agreement. The negotiations are in limbo, but these agreements are the prerequisites for the negotiations on a baseline agreement between Belarus and the EU.

At the same time, there is a positive view on the development of bilateral relations. Foreign Minister of Belarus Uladzimir Makiej said at the latest ministerial meeting in Brussels that there was a chance the partnership priorities agreement would be signed by the end of the year. In mid-December, this agreement will be discussed at a meeting of the Belarus-EU Coordination Group. If Belarus and the EU countries decide to make certain concessions, an agreement can be reached.

The expert community believes such a positive outcome is unlikely. However, the stalemate at the negotiations does not mean the dialogue will be suspended. EU programs are being implemented, projects are being funded as per the decisions of the EaP Summit in Riga.

Further to the discussion, the attendees addressed the policy pursued by the Foreign Ministry of Belarus and how the Belarusian authorities see the goals of Belarus’s relations with the EU.

Belarus’s objectives in developing its relations with the EU are clear, pragmatic and not too ambitious: they include access to the EU market and macro-financial assistance. Official Minsk would like to guarantee the openness of the EU market in exchange for Belarus’s meeting the demands put forward by Europe; however, the EU is not ready to provide such guarantees, believing that compliance with the standards should be a starting condition for negotiations. Accordingly, the negotiating aspirations of the EU and Belarus do not coincide.

Moreover, Belarus is viewing the experience of Ukraine, for which product quotas still remain, despite the association agreement and compliance with the respective technical standards. In addition, Belarus has obligations to the EEU. Therefore, Belarusian producers need to meet two standards – those adopted by the EU and the EEU, which further complicates the negotiations.

Therefore, Belarus is committed to ensuring the openness of the EU market and obtaining additional funding. But the question arises where the Belarusian authorities see the benefits for the EU in opening its market and financing projects in Belarus.

The Belarusian authorities regard as sufficient motivation for the EU the desire to have good neighborly relations with Belarus and the preservation of its assistance in preventing drug trafficking and ensuring border control. In addition, the EU should appreciate the role of Belarus in the endeavor to resolve the Ukrainian crisis.

In the meantime, things are somewhat more complicated in the EU when it comes to its motivation to collaborate with Belarus. What should be emphasized here is the decision-making process in the EU bodies. The Council of the EU, an intergovernmental body, makes decisions based on geopolitical factors and security issues. The European Commission and the European Parliament, the two supranational bodies, follow what is written in official documents.

Consequently, the EU’s goals in its relations with Belarus are more difficult to identify. The EU states have their own agenda, whereas the neighboring countries of Belarus have different objectives. There are also such states as Lithuania, which have specific interests. And finally, there is the bureaucratic structure of the EU. At the official level, it is more about the tasks set out in the documents than about political ends. Given all these levels of decision-making, it is difficult to agree on a single approach to Belarus.

On the other hand, Belarus, an EaP country, has no political motives in its relations with the EU. Unlike neighboring countries, Belarus does not seek to get closer to the EU or enjoy membership. It is easier for the EU to build up dialogue and put forward its conditionality in the shared framework with those countries that have such political goals.

At the same time, the geopolitical agenda in its relationship with Belarus is apparent. For example, the EU positively assesses the role of Belarus in the Ukrainian conflict. Belarus also has a political goal, but it is not declared. It concerns the political counterbalance to Russia’s influence.

The meeting also addressed the point that in recent years, there have been more ‘quiet’ meetings than political declarations in the relations between the EU and Belarus, and that this has helped advance the EU’s political agenda. Diplomacy loves silence and so does decision-making. Communication between Belarus and the EU has improved in recent years, which facilitates dialogue.

Belarus is not ready to adapt anything without a certain benefit for itself. One example is its compliance with the requirements of Euratom, of which Belarus is not a member. The EU, for its part, is not yet ready to hear that Belarus has its own interests. It is possible that relations should be built on the experience of other third countries, like Kazakhstan, which is not an EU neighboring country, but which has well-established economic ties with the EU.

Experts also noted that one reason behind the disillusionment over the deceleration of the palpable results of the dialogue with the EU may be the lack of information about these results. These include, inter alia: financial assistance for projects has doubled, the position of Belarus’s customs attach? in Brussels has been introduced, textile tariffs have been lifted, and new programs of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development have been developed. Specific activities are underway despite the difficulties in achieving ambitious goals. It is also possible that to assess the real rate of the development of relations with the EU, there are not enough generally accepted effectiveness criteria.

The stability of the European dimension in Belarus’s foreign policy is also negatively affected by its weak foothold in the country’s socio-political pattern. The promotion of the European agenda involves a critically small number of institutions — in fact, only the Foreign Ministry, partly the parliament, and several NGOs, whereas other departments, local authorities, civil society, parties and society as a whole remain uninvolved.

In general, experts believe that a new setback in the evolution of the relations with the EU due to mutual disappointment and the lack of clear development (not self-preservation) goals in these relations is highly unlikely. The track record of engagement between Belarus and the EU has made it clear how to not break the wave of normalization. However, it is obvious that the issue of internal stability of the state will remain decisive: the relations with the EU are important, but Belarus will not make political and economic concessions that could lead to internal destabilization.

Summary of the discussion prepared by Angelina Yurkova

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