Tackling Frozen Conflicts in the EU's Own Neighbourhood

By Bogdan Aurescu
Romanian Foreign Minister
Last year’s events in South Caucasus have brutally brought to light the issue of protracted conflicts in the Black Sea region, frequently referred to as ‘frozen conflicts’.
At the eastern border of both the EU and Nato, worrying regional developments are constantly on Romania’s radar, as there are actors ready to exploit vulnerabilities, create or maintain tensions and push for outcomes which threaten a stable, peaceful and democratic European neighbourhood.
Against this backdrop, Romania has drawn the signal that the time has come to resume the EU-level dialogue on protracted conflicts and their crippling effects on the region’s security and development perspectives.
During last October’s Foreign Affairs Council (FAC) meeting in Luxembourg, I advanced the proposal to include this topic on the agenda of a future reunion.
Subsequently, at the 19 November FAC meeting, together with counterparts from ten member states (Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia and Sweden), I signed a letter addressed to EU foreign affairs high representative, Josep Borrell, in view of advancing a substantial dialogue among EU foreign ministers on enhancing the EU’s active approach towards protracted conflicts.
What we can do together is to develop concrete instruments through which the EU can have leverage on facilitating solutions with regard to protracted conflicts, based on international law.
We need renewed attention on this topic and we must re-acknowledge the importance of maintaining an active role of the EU in addressing these issues, in light of the strategic objective of consolidating the global vocation and resilience of the Union.
As the EU and Nato represent the most solid geopolitical area of security and stability, they must consider the long-term effects that protracted conflicts in the Black Sea region have for the wider European security and strategic resilience.
As a systemic issue, it must benefit from increased attention and an adequate approach at multilateral level, within the EU and Nato, as well as within the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) – a viewpoint that I shared with fellow Nato foreign ministers during our latest virtual meeting in December.
Protracted conflicts – a constant source of instability
Fuelled by continuous foreign interference and complex local and geopolitical interests, protracted conflicts have been part of the EU’s neighbourhood political realities.
The Republic of Moldova, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Ukraine are all faced with frozen conflicts that provide external actors the tools to destabilise the whole region.
This is a constant source of instability and a threat not only to our near neighbourhood, but also to the wider Euro-Atlantic security architecture.
Protracted conflicts reflect a logic of spheres of influence in international relations, as opposed to the sovereign right of states to freely choose their future and their path of development.
The genesis and persistence of these conflicts are associated with successive and blatant violations of international law. Their persistence poses unique challenges to any attempt at building a rules-based international order.
Without real perspectives for the resolution of these conflicts, EU’s neighbourhood still struggles to achieve a development framework centred on sound economic and security policies.
In today’s Europe, we should not tolerate the use of instruments of force to exert influence, as remnants of the 19th century practice of a droit de regard at the periphery of Great Powers’ interests.
The trap of flawed perceptions
Claiming that these conflicts are an unavoidable pitfall of today’s geopolitics and that their consequences aren’t serious enough to justify immediate action on behalf of the Union is a flawed perception and a dangerous trap.
With protracted conflicts on their territories, a number of states in the EU eastern neighbourhood are impeded from exercising their sovereign rights over parts of their territories, and entire societies see their future prospects undermined by artificial divisions.
Protracted conflicts see cycles of violence that generate recurring crises, as recently in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Violent confrontations can occur at any moment, as long as the logic of spheres of influence and ongoing international law violations is tolerated, in the absence of a resolute reaction of the international community. We have witnessed that in Ukraine since 2014.
Protracted conflicts delay democratic transition at the EU’s border and challenge European and Euro-Atlantic security.
Such is the case of the Republic of Moldova. Presidential elections were decisively won by the pro-democratic candidate last November, demonstrating the firm option of the citizens to modernise their society in the spirit of European values.
We must address the conflict in the Transnistria region, which impacts the stability and security of the Republic of Moldova and the entire region.
The solution to this conflict should be found in previously agreed multilateral formats, with full respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Republic of Moldova within its internationally recognised borders, and without jeopardising the European path of the country, in accordance with the will of the majority of its citizens.
The value of the European model lies in its active involvement.
As a normative power, the EU put forward a development model which helped “transform most of Europe from a continent of war to a continent of peace,” as the Nobel committee stated when it awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to the EU in 2012.
This model enables the EU to strengthen both its global profile and its support for the countries that rely on its action.
Our core mission must be to extend this model of success to our neighbourhood, to project peace, stability and prosperity.
Many of the partner states faced with protracted conflicts have already expressed their interest in ever closer ties with the EU.
They are putting effort into implementing reforms to answer the legitimate expectations of their citizens: improved living standards guaranteed by consolidated democratic systems, the perspective of joining an extended European area of peace and prosperity.
But their ability to continue on this path is hindered by the disruptive effect of protracted conflicts.
The Black Sea region holds strategic significance for the European and Euro-Atlantic long-term peace and security.
This prospect depends on our ability to promote commonly-accepted norms and values through bilateral and multilateral dialogue as means for peaceful conflict resolution.
This is why our institution-building expertise and our power of negotiation must authoritatively support the advancement of political processes tied to the resolution of protracted conflicts in our Eastern neighbourhood.
The objective of the joint letter initiated by Romania, co-signed by ten other member states, to the high representative of the Union for foreign affairs and security policy was precisely this: a concrete first step on a path to greater involvement of the European Union in solving the problems which fuel a vicious circle of instability at our borders.
Romania calls for a serious conversation at EU level on our joint action towards solving protracted conflicts, in a formal framework and in the spirit of European unity.
Such a debate has the potential to generate concrete results for EU’s neighbourhood policy, enhance the influence of the Union in its neighbourhood and generate medium and long term gains for the European and Euro-Atlantic security.
The trust invested in the European project by our partner states makes it imperative for the EU to assert a greater leadership role in the Black Sea region in 2021 and beyond.

The fact is that only a Union capable to sustainably project stability, peace, democracy and prosperity in its neighbourhood can credibly strengthen its global leadership. /EUobserver, January 19, 2021