The EU has acquired many supranational powers at the expense of national parliaments and governments. However, in the face of several recent events, most prominently the financial crisis of 2008 and the refugee crisis, it has failed to operate as originally envisaged by its founders and as expected by its citizens. This
has resulted in a loss of trust in the EU, boosted populist backlash against further integration and augmented calls for “leave” campaigns.
Consequently, the European Union, regarded until recently as the most successful modern integration project, has plunged into another crisis – this time an existential one. The Dutch referendum on the Association Agreement with the Ukraine and the Brexit referendum have been the first shocks of this crisis.
The victory of Eurosceptics in these referendums has cast a shadow on the internal stability of the European Union. This shadow has the potential to grow darker in the coming years, as seven more EU States — the Czech Republic, France, Hungary, Poland, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Austria, where Euroscepticism is particularly strong — could decide to leave. Against the backdrop of these developments, many informed observers argue that ”
the disintegration of the EU [is] practically irreversible.
The growing influence of centrifugal forces within the EU, right-wing populism, opposition to immigration, and a desire to be less involved with the rest of the world are amongst the major factors that may seriously damage the original vision of the Union. Unsurprisingly, these challenges that the European Union faces internally have both immediate and long-term implications for Europe’s role in the post-Soviet region.
First, it paralyzes the policies of the EU with regard to the Eastern Neighborhood Project and debilitates its role as a geopolitical actor in the region. The EU’s own domestic problems and the sharp influx of refugees means it will be less effective in pursuing deeper integration projects, especially visa – liberation with the Eastern Partnership countries. For some western observers this
means that countries will be pushed back into Russia’s historic sphere of influence, even though no one in the European Union would openly admit it
Truly, a weakened EU reinforces Russia’s position in the region; under the existing circumstances, Brussels will not be able to engage actively with the post-Soviet region and promote the integration projects that Russia has so long struggled to avert.
On the other hand, the increase of centrifugal tendencies within the EU have dealt a crushing blow to the reputation of the Union in the post-Soviet region and given ammunition to Kremlin propaganda; the internal challenges of the EU are used by Russian propagandists to portray Western integration projects as a perilous alternative to a Russia-led Eurasian Union, and Brexit may be portrayed as “
the detonator of the EU disintegration
”. Russian-sponsored news outlets convincingly argue that an EU that is stuck in several crises and at the verge of collapse cannot be a worthy economic and political bloc to trust in.
The implications of these events from the perspectives of the three South Caucasian republics – Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia – that are situated at a sensitive geopolitical position surrounded by three great powers – Russia, Iran, and Turkey — are numerous.
These countries have taken highly different paths in their international politics: Armenia is a long-time Russian ally; Georgia remains committed to the pursuit of EU and NATO membership, but its Western-leaning foreign policy is increasingly challenged by groups that favor rapprochement with Russia; Azerbaijan has until recently upheld a balanced approach in its foreign policy, but is currently governed by a largely pro-Russian government.
In each of these countries, civil society and political groups struggle for democratic reforms and pro-Western shifts in the political orientation of their respective countries. Hence, recent political developments in the European Union will be highly consequential:
Armenia is directly dependent upon Russia for protection and its economic well-being. The country hosts one of the two fully fledged Russian military bases abroad and cannot afford to ignore the views of Moscow in its foreign policy maneuvers. Therefore, it was not surprising that President Serzh Sargsyan opted to join the Russian-dominated customs union with Kazakhstan and Belarus in September 2013, although he was expected to sign a partnership agreement with the EU at the Eastern Partnership summit later that year. Against the backdrop of growing Russian influence over the country, pro-Western civil society and political groups have not received much support from the West. This was even more clearly demonstrated by the West’s turning a blind eye to the re-election of Serzh Sargsyan through what many considered electoral fraud.
Despite their disillusionment, Armenian society in general understands very well that having close ties with the West is an essential condition to prevent Russia from turning Armenia into a protectorate, undermining its national sovereignty and entirely dominating its domestic and external policies. The Eurosceptic clouds hanging over the European Union and the anti-enlargement sentiments of many Europeans have dashed this hope of most Armenians. A few days after the Brexit referendum, an Armenian human rights activist hopelessly
“The British voters’ decision to leave the European Union has dealt a crushing blow to the many Armenians who had dreamed of their country loosening Moscow’s grip and embracing the freedom the West represents… Armenia, much of whose population wanted to enjoy closer ties with the EU before Russia bullied Yerevan into joining the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union, will have to continue swallowing Russian dominance of its affairs…”
Pro-European sentiment amongst the Azerbaijani people and its political elite has never been as strong as it is in Georgia or the Ukraine. The low-profile of the Union in the resolution process of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has damaged its image in the eyes of the general public. Due to a number of reasons — including the silence of the leading European leaders against the oppression of the ruling regime — many independent civil society groups are also disillusioned with European politicians.
The preoccupation of European leaders with ongoing internal crises further lowers the profile of Union in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Elkhan Shahinoglu, Director at Atlas Research Center, pointed out in a
that the EU has become less willing to deal with foreign issues, including the relatively faraway Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Otherwise, it is believed that German Chancellor Angela Merkel would not have portrayed Russia as the key actor in the settlement of the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia during President Aliyev’s latest visit to Berlin.
Therefore, for Azerbaijan, economic relations with the European Union are more significant than political interactions. After the Brexit referendum, the expert community and politicians were more interested in debating the fall of the pound and its possible consequences to, rather than to the referendum’s effect on the resolution process of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and other issues. When asked about the likely political impact of Brexit on Azerbaijan, Rasim Musabeyov, a lawmaker in Azerbaijan’s parliament, said that
“the EU hasn’t cooperated with us so closely, so I’m not expecting any impact on bilateral relations.”
It is widely believed that disintegration trends in the European Union will further strengthen the stance of Azerbaijani Eurosceptics. In his reflections on the consequences of Brexit for Azerbaijan, Azar Gasimli, an Azerbaijani political expert, came to the same conclusion. In his
“The signing of the Association Agreement between Azerbaijan and Europe will come to the table again. But Brexit will nourish views that question the meaning and significance of integration into a bloc that is on the verge of breaking up. It gives further strength to the political groups within the government that oppose European integration.”
In the aftermath of the Brexit referendum, the government-supported news agency
published an article relating the exit of the UK from EU with
“the geopolitical, political, and cultural degradation of the European Union.”
The author, portraying Western leaders as the instigators of numerous bloody conflicts in the Middle East, questioned the legitimacy of their calls for democracy and human rights in other countries and their support for “color revolutions”. The article concludes that “it seems that Brexit is a natural process. It demonstrates that the policies, world outlook, and ideology of the West is doomed to fail.”
Georgia is much more affected than its neighbors by the ongoing disintegration trends in the EU. Integration into Euro-Atlantic military and political structures is the only hope for many Georgian politicians and ordinary people to stand up against Russia’s military aggression and economic pressure. However, existing geopolitical realities make it rather challenging for Georgia to continue on the European path. Russia’s threats against any enlargement of NATO or the EU in the post-Soviet space, Germany’s reluctance to grant a visa-waiver deal to Georgians for short-term travel to the Schengen zone, and signals that Tbilisi will return empty-handed and without a MAP (Membership Action Plan) from the Warsaw summit of NATO have already complicated the foreign policy vision of Georgia.
Growing resistance to any eastward enlargement in the EU deals another serious blow to pro-Western groups in Tbilisi. Recently, President Giorgi Margvelashvili expressed his concerns that Georgia’s European integration might be badly affected in the context of Brexit when the EU member states are very much involved in the process of planning the future of the EU. He stressed that it is very important to
continue bilateral relations and deeper integration projects
without any delay. In a similar vein, Georgian Defense Minister Tinatin Khidasheli expressed her hopes that Brexit will not affect the
EU’s process of lifting visa requirements for Georgian citizens.
However, some important political circles in the country, including Bidzina Ivanishvili who is often seen as the “strong man behind the scenes,” suggest
reconsidering the foreign policy agenda of the country.
It will be increasingly difficult for pro-Western politicians to convince the Georgian people to remain steadfast in their path to Euro-Atlantic integration. Some Georgian experts warn that due to these developments, anti-European, xenophobic, and nativist movements are growing and
the mantra of the treacherous EU is gaining ground in Georgia.
Therefore, receiving a positive signal from the West before the parliamentary elections in October would help pro-Western groups to maintain the country on a pro-European path.