Neither Berlin nor Paris currently favours EU or NATO membership for the Eastern Partnership countries, although France is more stark than Germany in its opposition.
In an attempt to create elements of a policy towards Russia going beyond sanctions, the EU agreed in March 2016 on five principles to guide its relationship with Russia:
- Insisting on full implementation of the Minsk agreements before corresponding economic sanctions against Russia are revoked;
- Pursuing closer relations with the countries of the Eastern Partnership and Central Asia;
- Becoming more resilient to Russian threats such as energy security, hybrid warfare and disinformation;
- Despite tensions, engaging selectively with Russia on a range of foreign policy issues, among them cooperation on the Middle East, counterterrorism and climate change;
- Increasing support for Russian civil society and promoting people-to-people contacts, given that sanctions target the regime rather than the Russian population.
The first two of these principles are concerned with the states that lie between Russia and the EU – the first with Ukraine, and the second with all six Eastern Partnership countries. Thus Franco-German cooperation in the EU framework needs to encompass relations with these countries. This is already happening with regard to Ukraine and the implementation of the Minsk agreements. Even if progress has been extremely limited, the Normandy Format and the Franco-German cooperation it entails have made a significant contribution to keeping the situation in Donbas from worsening, notably in 2015. The Eastern Partnership, however, is in danger of disintegrating as a result of the departure of Belarus and the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The more cohesive segment, consisting of Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine (all three possessing association agreements with the EU) is attempting to separate itself as clearly as possible from the three other states. While Berlin and Paris have to some extent overlapping agendas regarding the six Eastern Partnership countries, cooperation is a challenge not only because of the fragmentation described, but also because there is a contrasting agenda in the east of the EU.
The Normandy Format
After the annexation of Crimea, President François Hollande opted for an approach based on both sanctions and engagement. He fully supported the EU policy of sanctions; at the same time, he decided to restore dialogue by inviting Vladimir Putin and the then Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, as well as Chancellor Angela Merkel, to the celebrations marking the 70th anniversary of D-Day. This initiative led to the creation of the Normandy Format, consisting of France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine, intended to work towards a resolution of the conflict in Donbas.
Germany and France thus began to work together in an attempt to end the Donbas war and prevent the further destabilization of Ukraine. In the context of the Normandy Format, they managed to win the support of both Russia and Ukraine for the Minsk agreements of September 2014 and February 2015, which laid out the steps to be taken to resolve the conflict and restore Ukrainian territorial integrity. The Franco-German cooperation in this framework functioned well, even if it was perceived in Germany as being somewhat asymmetrical, with the German side playing the leading role at certain stages of the negotiations, at least until the election of Emmanuel Macron.
However, this cooperation has not yet achieved its goals, and the Ukrainian authorities have at times considered other negotiation formats, thereby potentially impeding one of the drivers of the Franco-German relationship as regards Russia. In particular, there were hopes on the Ukrainian side that Washington would play a more active role with regard to the conflict, and US analysts have called for this as well. But because their foreign policy priorities lie elsewhere, the US and the UK are not currently inclined to join the Normandy Format. In September 2021, during Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s visit to Washington, President Biden pledged assistance to Ukraine in a number of fields, but did not meet Zelenskyy’s expectation about an extension of the Normandy Format. The final joint statement on the US–Ukraine Strategic Partnership does not go beyond reiterating the US’s ‘full support for international efforts, including the Normandy format, aimed at negotiating a diplomatic resolution to the Russian-led conflict in Eastern Ukraine …’. Indeed, Biden’s decision to waive sanctions for the primary company responsible for the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, and the US–German agreement in July 2021 permitting the pipeline to be completed, had already led to disillusionment among the Ukrainian elite concerning the potential role of the US and its agenda towards Ukraine.
The Normandy Format has constituted the bedrock of the Franco-German relationship as regards Russia and Ukraine in recent years.
The Normandy Format has constituted the bedrock of the Franco-German relationship as regards Russia and Ukraine in recent years, even though it has not resulted in a workable and sustainable conclusion to the Donbas conflict. Paris and Berlin agree on the reasons why the Minsk agreements failed to gain traction: the problem lies less in the agreements themselves (although they are far from unproblematic) than in the absence of implementation, given the reluctance of the actors involved to see them applied, in particular on the Russian side. Six years after their conclusion, there is still debate about which clauses should come first, with Moscow insisting that political issues be settled before security issues, which is – understandably – unacceptable to Kyiv. Multiple attempts by the Ukrainians to modify the Minsk agreements to make them more fit for purpose have been implicitly or explicitly rejected by the Russian side.
There is concern about what will happen to the Normandy Format in the post-Merkel era. Angela Merkel’s departure means a certain loss of expertise at the very top level in dealing with Russia and Ukraine, as well as a probable reduction of interest in this subject in the Chancellery. Despite the political uncertainties and the limits of the format itself, this important dossier tends to bring Paris and Berlin together, and both have expressed scepticism about a possible extension of the Normandy Format to the US. During his visit to Kyiv in August 2021, on the 30th anniversary of Ukraine’s independence, France’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Jean-Yves Le Drian, expressed his intention to revive the Normandy Format and to convene a meeting of the four participating countries’ foreign ministers. Despite reports that such a meeting could take place in late 2021, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov subsequently seemed to dampen such hopes, pointing to steps the Ukrainian side would need to take for the meeting to go ahead.
The danger appears to be that the ongoing hiatus in high-level meetings in the Normandy Format will have two consequences, alongside the continuation of the fighting and the further destabilization of eastern Ukraine. First, it will discourage France and Germany from investing much effort in the initiative, thereby eroding the basis for their cooperation over Russia and Ukraine. Second, their failure in this case could have negative implications for the way the Franco-German motor is perceived in the wider security sphere, within the EU context and beyond. However, the US–German agreement of July 2021 concerning the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, among other issues, commits Berlin to intensifying its efforts in the Normandy Format, and this commitment seems likely to be upheld by Germany’s incoming government.
The Russian military build-up of more than 100,000 troops near the Ukrainian border and on the Crimean peninsula in April 2021, as well as new military deployments the following November, emphasizes that Moscow continues to rely on military instruments for setting red lines, ensuring its interests are taken into, account and influencing Ukrainian domestic and foreign policy. Thus, while the Normandy Format has served as proof that France and Germany can cooperate on questions concerning the Eastern Neighbourhood, it is by no means a success story – although it is certainly better than leaving Ukraine to confront Russia alone, without international support.
The future of the Eastern Partnership and NATO membership
The future of the Eastern Partnership remains a contentious issue within the EU. On the one hand, some partnership countries, such as Ukraine, state openly that they are dissatisfied with this format, which they consider an insufficient and unsuitable status. They continue to advocate for being granted an EU membership perspective. On the other hand, the European Commission has expressed concern about the setbacks observed, particularly in Ukraine, in the fight against corruption, as well as in other areas specified for reform. Simultaneously, European think-tanks such as the European Council on Foreign Relations argue in favour of adding a security dimension to the Eastern Partnership by establishing ‘security compacts’, particularly in the field of cybersecurity, hybrid threats and intelligence-gathering.
The views of Paris and Berlin converge to a certain extent since both are opposed to changing the ‘finalité’ of the Eastern Partnership – i.e. it is not an EU accession process – and to offering a membership perspective to Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, the three countries that already benefit from an association agreement. Along with some other EU member states, France has so far considered that the Eastern Partnership has no geopolitical purpose. As such, the French position has been to exclude extending the Eastern Partnership’s multilateral dimension to defence and security issues and granting a special status or differentiated formats to countries that have concluded association agreements with the EU. In October 2019, France vetoed the opening of EU adhesion negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia, and since then it has tended to resist any discussion about enlargement encompassing the Balkans. Interviewed in early 2021, Clément Beaune, a long-time close adviser to Emmanuel Macron who was appointed Deputy Minister for European Affairs in mid-2020, stated that he did not see any interest in promoting new enlargement except for ‘some Balkan countries’ (and that ‘only in 10 years’ time’). In Beaune’s view, there is a need to define EU boundaries once and for all, because the absence of limits fuels retrenchment behind national borders.
Berlin’s position is less categorical in this regard. While focused on the implementation of the association agreements with Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, Germany is open to suggestions on feasible ways to deepen cooperation with them, as well as with the three other partner states. German officials refrain from making definite statements about the possibility of further enlargement to the east, preferring to emphasize development of relations with the various countries of the Eastern Partnership in the short to medium term. However, while these relations are quite advanced in some areas, it must be stated that currently the geopolitical role of the EU and its Eastern Partnership in these countries is far from impressive. Since the beginning of the protests and the ensuing government repression in Belarus in August 2020, and the war in Nagorny Karabakh in the autumn of the same year, other external actors have played much more significant roles, even though France remains a co-president of the OSCE Minsk Group on the Nagorny Karabakh conflict, alongside the US and Russia.
Thus while largely agreeing on the ‘finalité’ of the Eastern Partnership, Paris and Berlin do not appear to have a common agenda on how to develop it productively. Their reluctance to envision new enlargement in the east (or in the Balkans, in the case of France) stems not only from a belief that such a move would intensify the ongoing security dilemma and reinforce Moscow’s aggressive behaviour. It also results from the realization that the EU is living through very turbulent times in the international arena, while having to deal with one crisis after another, confront illiberal challenges from within and combat foreign malign actions that threaten the EU. Consequently, in their view, there is an urgent need, especially after Brexit, to focus on improving the functioning of the EU and reinforcing the legitimacy of the European project in member states’ societies.
There is also convergence between Paris and Berlin on their current refusal to grant NATO membership to more post-Soviet countries. Ukraine resolutely asserts its ambition to join NATO – a prospect enshrined in its constitution. The authorities in Kyiv apparently wished to take advantage of the change of administration in the US at the beginning of 2021 to relaunch the process of joining NATO and obtaining a Membership Action Plan, in line with the commitment made to Ukraine, as well as to Georgia, at the Bucharest NATO summit in April 2008. Neither France nor Germany openly rejects the decision taken in Bucharest. However, this prospect is generally seen by Paris as a potential cause of more insecurity for Alliance members, while Berlin does not believe that the moment for implementation has come, since Ukraine would be more of a security liability than a security asset to NATO in the current environment. Moreover, the implication that a country cannot accede to the Alliance if it is confronted with a conflict on its territory has not remained unnoticed in Moscow: de facto, the protracted conflicts in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and the ongoing hostilities in Donbas are serious impediments to accession for Georgia and Ukraine.
There is little chance of achieving common action at the European level, since German and French views on cooperation with Russia and the future of the Eastern Partnership hardly elicit unanimity in the broader EU context.
In sum, France and Germany tend to converge in their vision of the EU Neighbourhood policy, and have similar approaches to the Eastern Partnership. Neither is inclined to contemplate EU membership for the Eastern partners in the foreseeable future; nor is NATO enlargement to Ukraine and Georgia currently on the agenda. This position certainly creates a common basis from which to consider other options within the Eastern Partnership framework. However, this agreement may well become an area of contention with the US and the UK, while already alienating member states in the eastern EU. Paris and Berlin both now focus more on deepening the existing structures of the Eastern Partnership, and widening sectoral cooperation with Eastern partners in order to promote European standards. However, Poland, for instance, continues to support the EU aspirations of Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia. While considering the Eastern Partnership neither as a stepping stone to EU membership nor as a substitute for membership, Warsaw insists that these countries should be granted the possibility to apply for EU membership in the future provided domestic reforms are carried out and prerequisite conditions are met. Lithuania has adopted a similar position.
There is therefore little chance of achieving common action at the European level, since German and French views on cooperation with Russia and the future of the Eastern Partnership hardly elicit unanimity in the broader EU context. To enhance their role in defining policy towards Russia, the central and eastern member states invest political resources in other EU-related positions. Some of them, in particular Estonia and the Czech Republic, promote a transactional approach – taking part, for instance, in the intergovernmental Takuba Task Force in the Sahel under the command of the French Operation Barkhane in order to show their support to EU countries that have to deal with the security challenges coming from the south. This willingness to participate is greatly appreciated in Paris. Whether such a transactional approach can serve as a model for future EU-wide cooperation remains to be seen, however. With regard to the Eastern Partnership, it seems more likely that commonalities will be found through deepening relationships with some of the countries involved without tackling the question of their potential future membership of the EU and NATO. However, due to more explicit support for potential EU membership for the associated countries from at least one of the parties in the incoming German government (the Greens), the options for Franco-German convergence in this area may decrease.