The Black Sea region is of huge geostrategic importance to the EU, acting as an energy corridor and a bridge to the East. But the economic and political situations in the Black Sea countries are hugely diverse, and the EU is yet to fully harness the potential for closer relations with partners in the region, heard participants in this Policy Dialogue.
“A few years ago I was very optimistic about cooperation between the countries of the Black Sea region. Now I’m less so,” said Dimitrios Triantaphyllou, director of the Centre for International and European Studies at Kadir Has University. Painting a picture of geopolitical “barriers” to cooperation, Triantaphyllou said “the region is in flux and at a dangerous stage. There are competing narratives of what needs to be done”. He said there were different narratives of how to describe the so-called ‘Black Sea region’: does it refer to the six littoral states of Turkey, Russia, Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine and Georgia? Does it refer to those six plus Azerbaijan, Armenia, Moldova and Greece, as preferred by the EU? Or does it refer to those ten plus Serbia and Albania, the academic wondered. “Many of these countries are also linked to other regions and sub-regions. Is the Black Sea a region, or more of a buffer or a pivot? I thought it was a region at first,” Triantaphyllou said, taking as his starting point the 12 member countries of the Organisation of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC). “There is potential for regional cooperation, especially given the EU dimension. There was hope and optimism, particularly on the EU side, but today there is doubt. There is tremendous infighting between some countries, for example Azerbaijan and Armenia. This has led to concerns as to the direction of the region,” Triantaphyllou said. “There is no momentum coming from the Black Sea region today, whereas decisions used to be taken easily. Institutional regionalism is stalling and perhaps even failing,” the academic claimed. “The EU launched its ‘Black Sea Synergy’ in 2008. All the Black Sea states except Russia aspire to come closer to the EU,” Triantaphyllou said, whether as members (for example Turkey) or through initiatives like the European Neighbourhood Policy or the Eastern Partnership. “Change came with the onset of the economic crisis and the change of government in Germany. [Former German Chancellor Gerhard] Schröder had moved ahead the Synergy. Germany was once the driver of the EU’s eastern policy. Now it’s less interested,” Triantaphyllou claimed. “Instead we saw the rapid development of the Eastern Partnership, led by other countries such as Poland. National prerogatives are now dominating EU foreign policy. The Eastern Partnership is now driving the EU’s Black Sea policy, which creates problems of synergy and of defining the region,” he said.
“The impact of EU policy on the region’s Europeanization is not there,” he claimed.
“Without regionalization led by the countries of the region in conjunction with the EU, you have nationalism and geopolitics emerging instead. Russia prefers the status quo, rather than a stronger role for the EU. And Russia tends to focus on issues like maritime security rather than the environment,” Triantaphyllou said. “Turkey and Russia have a convergence of interests in the region, for example visa liberalization, or boosting trade and tourism,” the academic said. He claimed that the EU’s failure to strongly influence the process of Europeanization in the Black Sea region was having an impact on its democratization. “Turkey’s democratic orientation is beginning to be subjected to debate, and jingoism is rising across the region,” he warned, expressing doubt as to its future direction. “The EU wants to keep its feet on the ground and be as practical as it can in cooperating with this complex region,” said
Konstantinos Vardakis, Deputy Head of Division for the Eastern Partnership, Regional Cooperation and the OSCE at the European External Action Service (EEAS). Globalization and EU integration have both driven and are continuing to drive dramatic economic and political change in the Black Sea region, the EEAS official said, citing as an example the recent accession to the EU of Bulgaria and Romania. “Turkey’s growth means it must play a leading role in driving Black Sea regional cooperation. The EU is willing to share responsibility for the peaceful and prosperous development of the region,” Vardakis said. “The Black Sea is important for the EU. We want to play a constructive role in all the sea basins surrounding the EU. Our objective is practical cooperation that benefits the people of the region,” he insisted. “But we must bear in mind the variable geometry of EU bilateral relations with Black Sea countries too. Bilateral relations will remain a key part of our relationships, for example with Russia,” he said. “The Black Sea Synergy doesn’t duplicate the Eastern Partnership. The Eastern Partnership vector points towards Brussels, whereas with the Black Sea Synergy, it’s about bringing the EU’s experience of cooperation to the region,” Vardakis explained. “The Black Sea is a complicated region. We want to develop cooperation on sector-specific issues, for example the environment, transport, education and maritime issues, and to enhance our overall contribution to regional Black Sea cooperation,” he said. “There’s no need to reinvent the wheel. The Organization of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation and the environmental side already exist. Let’s establish a relationship between BSEC and the EU. But the EU is only an observer in BSEC, so there are limits,” Vardakis cautioned. “We’re ready to further develop relations with the region via concrete projects. We’ll organize a conference bringing together all actors in the region to do this,” he explained. “There was a proposal for a Black Sea College of European Studies. But there were concerns over its sustainability,” said Vardakis, citing talk of €15,000/year tuition fees. “We’re now discussing other projects,” he said, explaining that the EU’s budget for the Black Sea region had increased recently.
“We’re trying hard via the Lisbon Treaty to build a coherent EU approach to the region that will eventually result in an EU Black Sea Strategy,” said Vardakis, admitting that “it’s not always easy for the EU to work with the Black Sea countries, which have such divergent foreign policy priorities”. “But we have wide experience of compromise. We look forward to closer cooperation with BSEC, even though we’re only an observer. We look forward to closer relations with all the peoples of the Black Sea region,” he concluded.
“It’s true that after Bulgaria and Romania’s accession, the EU feels closer to the Black Sea region. It’s a bridge between the EU and the Caspian, and between the EU and Asia. Its geostrategic importance, particularly regarding energy, is increasing,” said Bulgarian Socialist MEP Evgeni Kirilov. “The European Parliament wants the EU to step up relations with the Black Sea region. But there are problems with involving these partners, especially regarding Russia and Turkey, and there’s jealousy too,” Kirilov warned. “We need to work on concrete issues like transport, the environment and security, which will grow in importance when Bulgaria and Romania join Schengen. We need to speak more about synergies,” he argued. “I’m worried that at this point, while we claim that the EU needs a more active presence in the region, the crisis is actually producing setbacks regarding our global standing and influence. We see the splendid failure of the Nabucco [pipeline] project, despite the EU having trumpeted its importance for 10 years now,” the MEP warned. “A stronger EU will need the resources to produce these policies, but the opposite is happening. The European
Parliament is fighting hard to defend EU funding,” Kirilov said. “We’re losing prestige by failing to solve the crisis. We’re at risk of going back, which would be a dangerous exercise.
We need to show the will to move forward,” he argued. “We need to work much more actively with Turkey and Russia. We must move forward on practical issues, while making clear that a desire for domination of former empires is neither helpful, nor in anyone’s interests,” he further insisted. “We need to show much more willingness to learn from the failings of the Black Sea Synergy so far. All the goals are relevant, but we need to be much more active in pursuing them,” Kirilov concluded.
Esra Hatipoğlu, Associate Professor at the Department of Public Administration, Marmara University, said there were two main challenges facing Black Sea regional cooperation: first, conceptualizing the Black Sea region itself, and second, issues regarding external powers.
The countries of the Black Sea region have “diverse and incompatible interests,” claimed Hatipoğlu, arguing that they have “various levels of global influence and interaction with international actors” and are at various levels of economic development. “These differences produce two problems,” she said. First, they “make the countries focus on narrow national interests rather than the region as a whole. Second, “there’s no real regional identity” and conflicts go unresolved due to a lack of trust. As for external powers, Hatipoğlu said countries were faced with the difficult decision of deciding whether to pursue the direction of Euro-Atlantic integration or closer ties with Russia. “There’s a lack of resources for boosting cooperation in the Black Sea area,” she added.
“The region is still regarded as a bridge, a buffer and a corridor, for example to the East, regarding energy, or as abarrier to prevent organised crime from reaching the EU,” Hatipoğlu said. “Another problem is how to engage Russia and Turkey. They are the historical great powers of the region. They have long histories of imperial domination of the region. Engaging them isn’t easy,” she warned. “Turkey wants stability. It wants to boost people-to-people contact in the region. It wants to improve relations with Russia. And it wants to prevent war in the region,” Hatipoğlu said. “Turkey and Russia both have an interest in preserving the status quo, so their relations regarding the region have been increasingly based on the pillars of maritime security, trade and economic cooperation,” the academic said. “But there are limits to Turkey-Russia cooperation. It’s pragmatic. It’s not based on a unified vision for the region. There are conflicts between the two, for example regarding the democratization of the region,” Hatipoğlu explained. “The main issue is promoting the greater involvement of internal and external powers in concrete projects, for example highway construction or the harmonization of standards. We must focus on network-building and developing common areas of interest,” she said. “Maritime transport is crucial for the region. Without it, there can be no regional cooperation. We must also build motorways and harness the potential of rivers to boost cross-border trade,” she argued.
Hatipoğlu urged Black Sea countries to resolve their strategic dilemma regarding Euro-Atlantic or more Russia-oriented outlooks, “which risks making regional cooperation devoid of substance”. “Common interests between Black Sea countries need to be explained more clearly,” she said. “The BSEC decision-making process doesn’t work properly, because it relies on unanimity,” the academic said. “Visa liberalisation is a priority for business. There must be more engagement of the international private sector and civil society, which can help to promote regional cooperation,” she concluded.
Asked how the relationship between BSEC and the EU could be expected to develop given the huge divergences between BSEC member countries, Dimitrios Triantaphyllou of Kadir Has University said “there’s an informal process of interaction with BSEC, despite huge tensions”. Triantaphyllou said it was crucial for the EU to make optimal use of the tools and instruments at its disposal during these times of financial constraint.
“Why don’t Bucharest, Sofia and Athens work together and coordinate their position in BSEC? That’s a quarter of the membership. The EU [influence] is much bigger than the debate regarding observer status,” he said. “Look at the quality of the representation. There’s more impact if the observer has flown from Brussels, rather than the EU’s Ankara office. The EU observer can potentially have a huge impact on influencing the agenda, but it isn’t harnessing that,” Triantaphyllou said. Asked to give examples of BSEC members’ incompatible interests, Esra Hatipoğlu of Marmara University said “BSEC is intended to focus primarily focus on economic issues, because it’s easier to find common ground there, which contributes to normalisation and people-to-people contact”. “BSEC members have incompatible interests regarding relations with international actors, and their understanding of stability is different,” Hatipoğlu said.
Asked about the EU’s efforts to resolve frozen conflicts, Bulgarian MEP Evgeni Kirilov said “if the EU steps back, these conflicts may restart. If the EU doesn’t react quickly enough, things could get more serious”. “We have cooperation with the Minsk Group, but that’s come under heavy criticism by the European Parliament for not working. We need the EU’s involvement as a soft power in solving issues like Nagorno-Karabakh. But politically, this needs to be understood by all the major powers,” he said