At the last informal Foreign Affairs Council, the so-called Gymnich, EU Foreign Ministers discussed the unresolved conflicts in the EU’s Eastern neighbourhood. We agreed on the need for the EU to be more actively engaged. That is why I mandated three EU Foreign Ministers to visit the South Caucasus countries on my behalf. They were accompanied by the EU Special Representative for the South Caucasus and crisis in Georgia, Toivo Klaar and a senior official from the EEAS, Michael Siebert.
The practice of mandating one or several EU Foreign Ministers to travel on my behalf is becoming more common. For example, the Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto has visited Sudan several times, reporting back to all member states. It is a good way to build a ‘Team Europe’ approach to EU foreign policy, strengthening the buy in from member states and enabling us to be present on the ground in more countries and regions than any single person can be.
I was glad that Alexander Schallenberg, Gabrielius Landsbergis and Bogdan Aurescu, the Foreign Ministers of Austria, Lithuania and Romania, accepted my invitation and travelled to the region at short notice. It was evident that the South Caucasus merited such a visit, to support the EU’s agenda and build on the recent developments and positive steps from Armenia and Azerbaijan. Indeed, I have welcomed the actions, facilitated by Georgia, that led to Azerbaijan releasing 15 Armenian detainees on 12 June and Armenia handing over maps of mined areas.
The Ministers passed three main messages to the leaders of the South Caucasus countries:
The South Caucasus is a region at the crossroads between Europe and Central Asia, bordering the wider Middle East. We see a growing number of countries that are active in the region, politically and economically, starting with Russia but also Turkey, China, Iran and others. The South Caucasus is important to the EU, in terms of transport corridors linking the EU with Asia and the diversification of EU energy resources. So, we should foster the region’s role as a connectivity hub.
All three countries in the South Caucasus suffer from unresolved conflicts. The 44-day war between Armenia and Azerbaijan in and around Nagorno-Karabakh in autumn 2020 shook the region and altered the regional balance. There is a growing expectation on the side of EU member states and partners for the EU to take a more active role in addressing the conflicts in the Eastern Neighbourhood.
Our involvement in Georgia is a good example of what the EU can do for peace, democracy and reform. The EU brokered an agreement to cease hostilities in 2008 and is in the lead of the conflict resolution efforts led by the EU Special Representative for South Caucasus, including in his role as co-chair of the Geneva International Discussions. The EU Monitoring Mission is the most important contributor to the security of Georgia and the only international monitoring presence on the ground since 2009. Overall, the EU is the biggest contributor to confidence-building through its activities in Georgia.
The EU has never been directly involved in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict settlement, which for the last 25 years is conducted under the leadership of the Minsk Group co-chairs (France, US, Russia). This does not mean that the EU has remained passive: we have supported the co-chairs through confidence building measures such as projects implemented at the community level under the European Partnership for the Peaceful Settlement of the Conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh (EPNK).
We were also closely engaged during the hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan last autumn: I had many exchanges with my counterparts from both countries and was in contact with other international actors to help end the conflict. Supporting the efforts of the Minsk Group co-chairs remains the best way to achieve a comprehensive and lasting settlement. However, we want to be helpful to these efforts and are ready to engage more.
One of our tools for engaging with the region is the Eastern Partnership. It is the only platform bringing the three partners and the EU together, even if this is not without its challenges. It is a framework helping partners to cooperate in areas that are non-confrontational and can improve the lives of citizens in concrete ways, boost better governance and create more links across the partner countries themselves.
We are now preparing for the December summit of the Eastern Partnership. In this context, the three Ministers sent a clear message that the Eastern Partnership is and will remain an inclusive cooperation format, while highlighting to Georgia that we appreciate its higher level of aspiration as an associated country. The EU has a vision to offer for the region and is a trustworthy reform partner. We are ready to help with confidence building and conflict transformation, together with multilateral partners such as the OSCE and the UN. We want to support efforts to build an environment free of fear and hate. We are ready to help rebuild not only physical roads and bridges, but also paths to reconciliation and peaceful co-existence.
The leaders of three countries have appreciated the EU visit and indicated they want more EU involvement in the region. They stressed their readiness to cooperate with the EU on regional economic development and connectivity and that they value the EU’s role in building trust and in contributing to conflict transformation. After this well-received and appreciated visit, we are ready to follow up with concrete steps, starting with an exchange on this visit at the next Foreign Affairs Council on 12 July.