The European Union indicated on Friday its reluctance to accept Armenia’s offer to renegotiate a planned Association Agreement with the EU that followed President Serzh Sarkisian’s unexpected pledge to join an ex-Soviet bloc led by Russia.
“In light of Armenia's declared choice to join the Customs Union it is however difficult to imagine the initialing at Vilnius summit in November of the Association Agreement with Armenia as it had been negotiated,” EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele said after talks with visiting Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian.
“Based on the information we presently have, the compatibility of obligations to the Customs Union with those under an Association Agreement/DCFTA (Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area) with the EU looks problematic,” Fuele added in a statement.
The statement made no explicit mention of the Armenian government’s hopes to finalize a significantly watered-down version of the agreement that would not include the DCFTA, its most important and substantive segment. Nalbandian flew to Brussels on Thursday in an effort to convince the executive European Commission to accept such a compromise.
A statement on Nalbandian’s talks with Fuele issued by the Armenian Foreign Ministry also reported no concrete understandings to that effect. It said only that he and Fuele agreed to “continue the intensive consultations between Armenia and the European Union.”
Fuele noted that the European Commission is also holding such consultations with EU member governments that ultimately decide the foreign policy of the 28-nation union. He said the EU’s executive body believes that “it is in the interest of all to further strengthen together with Armenia what we have jointly achieved over the past years of partnership."
Fuele is scheduled to travel to Yerevan on September 12 to attend a meeting of the foreign ministers of former Soviet republics eligible for association agreements with the EU. He will almost certainly meet Sarkisian.
Meanwhile, Yerevan’s last-minute volte-face was criticized on Thursday by the European People’s Party (EPP), a coalition of Europe’s leading center-right political groups. In a resolution adopted during a meeting in Brussels, the EPP Political Assembly said it “regrets the decision of Armenian President to join the Eurasian Customs Union, which undermines the achievements of Armenia towards the EU.” It said membership in the Russian-led union is “is incompatible with concluding the Association Agreement.”
The EPP resolution also accuses Russia of forcing Armenia into a trade bloc which the Kremlin regards as the backbone of a future Eurasian Union of ex-Soviet states. “The Eurasian Union is an instrument being used by the Russian leadership to prevent neighboring countries enhancing their integration with Europe in order to maintain them as Russian satellite states,” it says.
Two senior members of Sarkisian’s Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), which is affiliated with the EPP, criticized the resolution. One of them, Education Minister Armen Ashotian, told RFE/RL’s Armenian service on the sidelines of the EPP meeting, “Forces regarding Armenia as an object of rivalry cannot be our long-term partners.”
The EPP criticism is all the more remarkable given a warm personal rapport that has existed until now between EPP President Wilfried Martens and Sarkisian. Martens raised eyebrows in Armenian opposition circles with strong support for the ruling HHK voiced during Armenia’s last presidential and parliamentary elections. The former Belgian prime minister also hailed Sarkisian’s hotly disputed reelection last February, saying that “the country’s democratization process will be further enhanced.”
Opposition leader Raffi Hovannisian, who was Sarkisian’s main election challenger, strongly condemned that stance. Hovannisian also threatened to pull his Zharangutyun (Heritage) party out of the EPP in protest.