By Orkhan Amashov
Now that the dust has sufficiently settled after the Sixth EU Eastern Partnership summit, it is perhaps an apt time to revisit EU-Azerbaijani ties in light of the joint declaration, with which the Brussels convocation culminated. It appears that Baku is steadfastly loyal to the precept that has underlined its European policy for the past decade, which, in a nutshell, could be described as maintaining close and deep relations without seeking membership.
Officials and analytical circles in Baku have enthusiastically welcomed paragraph 2 of the joint declaration, which reiterated the EU's commitment to supporting "territorial integrity within their internationally-recognised borders, independence and sovereignty of all Eastern partners, with respect for and adherence to the purposes enshrined in the UN charter, the 1975 Helsinki Final Act and the 1990 Charter of Paris". The inclusion of this particular point is unsurprising. The annual report on the implementation of the EU Common Foreign and Security Policy, presented in January 2020, makes a similar point on the support of territorial integrity for all member states.
In fact, previous joint declarations, adopted in the format of the EU Eastern Partnership, were also supportive of the territorial integrity of all participants. Although no reservation or exception was ever considered in relation to any state, including Azerbaijan, Baku has never found itself benefiting from the EU to this effect. Thus, in relation to Azerbaijani territorial integrity, paragraph 2 could be viewed as a mere confirmation of what Baku has achieved and what Europe, at large, was certain to accept.
In paragraph 10 of the aforementioned document, the EU and interested partners welcomed progress in the ongoing negotiations between the EU and Azerbaijan towards striking a new comprehensive agreement. At present, EU-Azerbaijan ties are regulated by the "Partnership Priorities", which were endorsed and came into force in 2018, and reports suggest that 90 per cent of the work on a new comprehensive agreement has already been accomplished. The impression is that the remaining 10 per cent of the issues are where the negotiating sides remain of differing opinion, although any surmise as to the content of these issues remains within the realm of speculation.
The essence of the EU Eastern Partnership project lies in bringing the countries in question closer to a European perspective. Brussels maintains the view that each participant is free to choose their degree of political association and economic integration, but it still remains true that the creation of the deepest form of ties is essential to the EU Eastern Partnership. In addition, all six countries are viewed as potentially fully-fledged members of the EU: this is not uttered too often and clearly, but such a conclusion derives from the logic of the entire European project, including its Eastern dimension.
Azerbaijan, at present, is not entertaining the idea of EU membership, even as a distant objective. Such a desire may have existed during the nascent years of the reestablishment of independence and probably continued for some time. However, during the course of the talks over a possible association agreement with Brussels, it transpired that Baku did not view a closer form of integration with EU institutions as desirable.
President Aliyev later explained the decision not to sign a deal on two grounds. Firstly, Brussels’ offer appeared to be a unilateral list of instructions, not a proposal that was contingent upon the principle of equal partnership. It could be surmised that Azerbaijan may have perceived that the suggested form of the partnership was an encroachment into its sovereignty. Secondly, there was no clearly-worded and unambiguous support for the resolution of the Armenian-Azerbaijani Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in line with Azerbaijan's territorial integrity, despite the fact that the identical provisions were included in agreements with Georgia and Moldova.
The present regulatory framework of EU-Azerbaijan relations is relatively all-embracing, and entails four different realms, which include strengthening institutions and good governance; economic development and market opportunities; connectivity, energy-efficiency, environment and climate activities; mobility and people-to-people contacts. Azerbaijan has already signed, on a bilateral basis, strategic partnership agreements with nine EU members, to boot.
Paragraph 16, amongst other items, states that “the EU and interested partners welcome the completion of the Southern Gas Corridor project, which has contributed to the diversification of gas sources and routes of supply to the EU”. The energy component has always been one of the essential linchpins in Baku's ties with Europe. Now that the fourth segment of the project, the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (TAP), is also operational, Azerbaijani gas is being exported to the EU, with Italy being the biggest recipient.
President Aliyev, in his interview to Spanish newspaper El Pais, has confirmed that Baku is conscious of its strategic importance to Europe in terms of energy supplies, but it is not in real competition with Russia, due to the difference in respective export volumes. Baku already exports to the EU more than 7 billion cubic metres (bcm) of gas per annum. This figure will be 9 and 11 bcm in 2022 and 2023 respectively, whereas Russian gas exports to Europe are estimated at hundreds of bcm of gas.
As a gas supplier, Azerbaijan has got its own specific benefits. It has the necessary infrastructure system in place, and offers a shorter transportation route than the traditional suppliers. In addition, Azerbaijan is a confirmed reliable partner, as President Aliyev stated in his aforementioned interview, for no country, which was reliant on Baku's energy supplies, had an issue during the time when Europe was in the grip of the gas crisis. But there is still a lot to be done on the energy front. This is because the gas market is designed in such a way that, in order for Baku to be able to increase production, it needs to negotiate with the European Commission and member states in advance, as gas is being sold on long-term contracts.
The EU’s emphasis, as stated in paragraph 6 of the joint declaration, is also on enhancing and supporting regional co-operation in the Eastern Partnership region, including strengthening links and transportation connectivity. Despite its generic content, it could be viewed as being supportive of the unblocking of communications in the South Caucasus.
In addition, paragraph 18, which includes the term “vaccine equity”, is widely viewed in Baku as being in conformity with Azerbaijan’s efforts, through its leadership of the Non-Alignment Movement and activities within the UN on the campaign against Covid-related "vaccine nationalism", which culminated in the adoption of a resolution to the same effect at the UN General Assembly on December 16.
In relation to the joint declaration, Baku has also exercised, for very good and sound reasons, its right to disassociate itself from paragraph 11 concerning Belarus, thereby remaining loyal to the country, which has been consistently supportive of its just stance on Karabakh. Azerbaijan has also maintained its reservations in relation to paragraph 9 of the annex to the declaration, which, inter alia, stated the support for organisations operating "in conflict-affected regions", in view of the possible ramifications that may be caused by foreign visitors to the Karabakh region.
Azerbaijan may be not as closely intertwined with the EU as the "Association Trio'' countries, namely Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, but its strategic significance to Europe is of megalithic proportions. The Brussels EU Eastern Partnership summit has, amongst other things, confirmed that its destiny partly lies in Europe, despite Baku being disinterested in any deeper form of association leading to EU membership.
Follow us on Twitter @AzerNewsAz