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Will the EU expand to the eastern lands of frozen conflicts?

Submitted by on 18 Feb 2011 – 10:33

By Robert Evans, an MEP from 1994 – 2009 and who served on the delegations for relations with Moldova and the South Caucasus countries

When I was elected to the European Parliament in June 1994, there were just twelve member states of the EU. By the end of 2004, ten central and east European countries had joined the Union. In 2007, Romania and Bulgaria gained accession. So in the space of little more than a dozen years, the Union changed from twelve western European states to 27 countries representing half a billion people stretching from Ireland to the borders of Russia.

Today we have a new jig-saw map of Europe, with many pieces missing or very different from those of just a few years ago. And what of the next few years? How might things be different in 2031? It would be a brave person who predicts no change at all. Quite apart from the unpredictable things that might happen there are plenty of moves afoot, all destined to change the face of Europe for good-if they take off-but all of them beset with problems or special challenges.

Take Moldova, for example. A tiny land-locked republic next to Romania was, for much of its life, part of Romania until annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940. It gained independence from Moscow in 1991 and maintains strong ties with Romania including an almost identical language and a very similar flag. Some Moldovans argue for reunification with Romania and a short cut to EU membership but in the meantime the lengthy negotiations for separate accession continue.

A real stumbling block to Moldovan membership remains the disputed region of Transnistria, where a war was fought in the early years of Moldovan independence with the loss of over 2,000 lives. Today, the tiny area of 150, 000 people is governed from its ‘capital’ Tiraspol and retains not just strong ties with Moscow but Russian troops on its soil. Together with its ‘supreme Soviet’ and the Russian language, there is an air about the place that suggests Russia has no intention of giving up its influence while in the Moldovan capital, Chisinau, there are no moves to relinquish claims to the territory.

Could this long running dispute or ‘frozen conflict’ put further stumbling blocks in the way of Moldova’s accession to the EU? It certainly won’t help but the presence of Turkish troops in Cyprus didn’t prevent this country joining while five years of membership have not brought about the long anticipated resolution of the division.

A similar situation exists in the South Caucasus countries where a kaleidoscope of peoples, languages and races living together has led to a history of wars, moving boundaries and disputed regions. The three states of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan have all indicated a possible desire to join the EU.

Moscow retains its claims on the impoverished region of South Ossetia, which is officially part of Georgia and over which an ill-judged conflict was provoked in 2008. Since then, Russian troops have maintained a strong presence in the area while the citizens use the Russian language, the Russian Rouble as their currency and work on Moscow time. Without some sort of resolution to this ‘frozen conflict’ or the similar problems in Abkhazia, it seems hard to imagine Georgian accession

negotiations becoming any easier.

In neighbouring Armenia and Azerbaijan, the long standing dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh is an unsolved problem that shows no sign of reaching an acceptable agreement. The Armenian-speaking region of Nagorno-Karababak is a self proclaimed independent area entirely within the borders of Azerbaijan controlled by Armenian troops.

Considering Europe’s chequered history and the emergence of a strong European Union, it would be a brave person to say that the issues addressed above are not insurmountable. Conversely, without full Russian cooperation, it is hard to imagine a solution to the frozen conflicts or an early accession to the EU for Moldova or any of the South Caucasus countries. But twenty-two years ago, if anyone had suggested that the Berlin wall would be breached without real bloodshed or that Moscow would allow the democratic break up of the Soviet Union, it would have been hard to find an audience to listen seriously for very long.

For myself, I actually do believe that a very different European Union will probably exist in twenty-one years time-some forty countries, a substantially different structure and with English being increasingly used as the language in diplomatic use. The territorial disputes may not all be solved by 2031 but the tensions should be lessened and with ever improving relations between Moscow and the West, new and imaginative agreements ought to be possible.

But you never know…