The European Union will not conclude an Association Agreement with Armenia at its upcoming summit in Lithuania despite Yerevan’s declared hopes to the contrary, according to government officials in the Baltic country currently holding the EU’s rotating presidency.
Echoing statements by EU leaders in Brussels, they say that the 28-nation bloc lacks time and enthusiasm for renegotiating the far-reaching agreement in time for the summit that will take place in Vilnius on November 28-29.
President Serzh Sarkisian said in Strasbourg last week that he still hopes to salvage a small part of the deal in the Lithuanian capital. “We will participate in the Vilnius summit, and our expectation is to make some changes in the negotiated document by that time,” he told the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly.
Sarkisian proposed those changes last month after unexpectedly deciding to make Armenia part of a Russian-led customs union, something which runs counter to key terms of the draft Association Agreement. They would radically water down and shorten the document by removing its provisions relating to the creation of a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) with the EU. The EU’s executive body, the European Commission, and some member states rejected this idea.
Senior Lithuanian officials involved in EU efforts to deepen ties with ex-Soviet republics under the Eastern Partnership program made clear this week that neither the association accord nor any other legally binding document will be on the summit’s agenda. Speaking to Armenian journalists on the condition of anonymity, they argued that the EU has too little time left to radically alter the agreement that was essentially worked out in July after more than three years of intensive negotiations. They also cited a sense of frustration and disappointment among EU negotiators in Brussels with the Sarkisian government’s last-minute U-turn.
The officials in Vilnius further indicated that the Lithuanian presidency of the EU is unlikely to suggest any alternative arrangements for Armenia during the upcoming summit. “We haven’t come up with new proposals or solutions,” one of them said.
Another Lithuanian official, Deputy Foreign Minister Andrius Krivas, said, “We are open to a search for forms and ways to continue the very good rapport that we have had with Armenia so far. But it will be a task for the next stage of the Eastern Partnership that will follow the Vilnius summit.”
Armenian Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian discussed the matter with the EU’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, in Brussels on Tuesday. Press releases by their offices made no mention of the Association Agreement, a further sign that it is not on the table anymore. A spokesperson for Ashton was quoted as saying that the EU remains committed to “deepening relations with Armenia in all areas that are compatible with Armenia's recently announced new commitments to the Customs Union.”
The Lithuanian government, a strong promoter of the Eastern Partnership, also favors continued engagement with the Armenian side on issues such visa facilitation for Armenians travelling to Europe. Some officials there believe that Yerevan had no choice but to bow to apparent Russian pressure because of its heavy dependence on military ties with Moscow resulting from the unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. One official suggested that Armenia might have been “too naive on Russia” when it began association talks with the EU in 2010.
But Petras Austrevicius, a deputy speaker of Lithuania’s parliament, was far more critical of Sarkisian’s dramatic volte-face, saying that it ran counter to what he called two key EU principles: “transparency and predictability.” “I wouldn’t say that this is a very European way of policy making,” he told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am) and Civilnet.am in Vilnius. “It’s more characteristic of how things are done east of Europe.”
“It’s certainly up to Armenia to decide, but I don’t understand the reasons why Serzh Sarkisan changed course,” added Austrevicius, whose Liberal Movement party is in opposition to Lithuania’s center-left government. Armenian membership in the customs union of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan would seriously complicate closer ties with the EU, he warned.
A former Soviet republic which joined the EU and NATO in 2004, Lithuania itself has been under Russian pressure in recent weeks. On Monday, Russia banned multimillion-dollar dairy imports from Lithuania and announced plans to impose tighter controls on imported Lithuanian meat and fish, ostensibly because of safety concerns. Lithuanian leaders dismissed the Russian claims, saying that the trade restrictions could be related to the Vilnius summit on the Eastern Partnership.