Latvia calls for Belarus visa liberalisation, support for WTO accession as EU reassesses neighbourhood policy

By bne IntelliNews December 16, 2014

Iana Dreyer of Borderlex -


Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkēvičs on December 15 called for a clear commitment to support Europe’s eastern neighbours in the coming months as the Baltic state prepares to take over the EU’s member state council presidency. He stressed in particular the need to start talking about visa liberalisation and accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) with Belarus.

Speaking on a visit to Brussels, Rinkēvičs set out the key priorities of his country as regards the EU's "Eastern Partnership" policy, which is targeted at Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia to support democratisation and offer deeper ties with the EU’s single market. The Baltic states, which are former Soviet republics that joined the EU in 2004, take a particular interest in the bloc’s policies towards the former Soviet space, and Latvia is set to take over the rotating presidency of the EU member state council from Italy in January 2015.

“I think we should use the four-five months we have for the preparation of the Eastern Partnership summit [to be held in May 2015] to define a clear political signal that the Eastern Partnership is as important to the European Union as five years ago,”, Mr Rinkēvičs said. “We need a reaffirmation of our commitment to our eastern partners.”

The EU is currently reviewing its so-called "Neighbourhood Policy", which was formalised in 2011 and has come under heavy criticism with the crisis in Ukraine and the flare-up of violence in the Middle East.

In reference to this internal debate process, the Latvian foreign minister said that over the last few years the EU has failed “to give a clear vision of what would be the endgame, what would be the benchmarks, the way forward in the longer term” to Europe’s eastern neighbours – particularly the question of whether they will ultimately be able to become full members of the EU continues to loom large.

Horses for courses

Rinkēvičs proposed a multi-tiered approach towards Europe’s eastern partners. Moldova and Georgia should be rewarded with more liberalisation and better access to the EU’s market, as they have made substantial progress in implementing EU laws and requirements. Georgians should be offered visa-free travel in the coming months, the minister believes. Moldovans recently obtained visa-free status with the EU.

Ukraine should be supported and offered more visa liberalisation, “but any further advice and support from Europe is very much dependent on real results” regarding political and economic reforms, the foreign minister said.

Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine have recently signed and ratified free trade and association deals with the EU. Ukraine’s implementation of the trade policy pillar of the deal was postponed until December 2015.

In the case of Armenia, a country that has decided to drop its association process with the EU in favour of joining the Russia-championed Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) instead, Latvia’s foreign minister said that there is scope to cooperate in targeted areas like the rule of law.

Azerbaijan’s case is more difficult, as the oil-and-gas-exporting, authoritarian country does not appear to be interested in working with the EU within the Eastern Partnership framework, the minister explained.

Rinkēvičs stressed continued cooperation with Belarus. “Certain developments [in Belarus] show that we can actually get more cooperation on a variety of issues.” He said there should be a “visa dialogue” and “visa liberalisation as a second step,” support for Belarus' accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO), and cooperation in the field of education.

Relations between the EU and Belarus have been strained in recent years. Belarus is subject to European sanctions due to Minsk’s human rights violations. Belarus, a non-democratic state with an econonmy that has kept intact many of its Soviet structures, is one of the few countries in the world that are not yet members of the WTO.

Belarus is a member of the EEU, which includes a customs union that involves applying the same trade policy as Russia and Kazakhstan, the third EEU member. But it has not followed Russia in applying trade sanctions against European agricultural products last summer. The crisis in Ukraine has triggered interest in Minsk and in Brussels to seek a rapprochement.

The ongoing crisis in Ukraine unravelled after the failure of the Eastern partnership summit in Vilnius in late 2013, hosted by another small Baltic country, Lithuania. This gives the  Latvian EU presidency in the first semester of 2015 particular political salience.

The presidency of the 28 member-state council is an institution that has lost some of its power since the coming into force of the 2009 Lisbon treaty, the EU’s fundamental sets of laws. The political priorities of the countries taking this role for six months nonetheless continue to shape the bloc’s political agenda.

This article first appeared on Borderlex, which provides news, analysis and intelligence on EU trade policy.

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