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22 August 2017
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Sailing the Black Sea at last

At a meeting between the EU and Black Sea countries foreign ministers in Kyiv on February 14th, the EU will finally kick off its new Black Sea policy. In this new initiative, the commission identifies as many as thirteen cooperation areas...

At a meeting between the EU and Black Sea countries foreign ministers in Kyiv on February 14th, the EU will finally kick off its new Black Sea policy.

In view of the 2007 expansion of the EU to Bulgaria and Romania, and after some ten years since the European Commission`s only communication on Black Sea cooperation, the launch of the Black Sea Synergy last spring was a long-awaited and welcome step.

Now it`s time to deliver, which is where things could begin to look difficult.

In this new initiative, the commission identifies as many as thirteen cooperation areas. It plans to draw the EU closer to the existing regional organisations, primarily the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC) organisation. And it aims to correlate region-wide developments with the resolution of the `frozen conflicts` in Georgia, Moldova and between Armenia and Azerbaijan. All this is not endowed with new financial means, but will draw on existing resources, as well as on mechanisms for joint financing with other international actors operating in the region.

These indications appear sensible and promising, but they also raise a number of important questions that the Black Sea countries and the commission will have to address if the proposed policy is to be effective and sustainable.

First, there is the sector-specific focus of the initiative. The commission places a strong emphasis on sectors such as the environment, energy and transport, where EU programmes and initiatives are already up and running. This is understandable. EU-sponsored mechanisms in these fields deserve a new boost, particularly the case of energy, where enhanced Black Sea cooperation could play a key role in the EU`s fledging goal of supply diversification.

The inclusion in the Synergy of issues such as democracy and internal security is also noteworthy.

Regional cooperation and exchange of best practices in these fields could potentially have a major impact on the fragile governance structures of most former Soviet countries. Likewise, EU initiatives when it comes to the promotion of democracy could take particular advantage of the interest shown for the Synergy by local and regional authorities, as well as non-governmental actors in the region.

Overall, however, the list of priorities is a bit on the long side: issues such as employment, science and technology have little regional specificity and could in the long run dilute the effectiveness of the new initiative.

The second question relates to the institutional level. The Synergy will not create new institutions, and the commission has obtained observer status in the BSEC. These are, as such, sound moves. Black Sea cooperation is already a jungle of agreements, associations, and acronyms. And BSEC, with a membership spanning from the western Balkans to the Caspian shores, represents the most comprehensive forum to discuss pan-regional issues.

At the same time, the EU would be well advised not to rely exclusively on this organisation for its Black Sea policy. What should warn against it is, on the one hand, BSEC`s relatively modest implementation record over the past fifteen years. Furthermore, the EU would have much to gain from including in its plans the other regional initiatives and their main sponsors: Romania, Ukraine and Georgia. As these countries emerge from a turbulent couple of years of domestic power struggles, they should be encouraged to revive and streamline the core business of organisations such as the Black Sea Forum and the Community of Democratic Choice.

Third, the launching of a Black Sea Synergy presents unavoidable challenges at the broader strategic level. Russia`s assertiveness in the region is of course the major stumbling bloc here. Should the new EU policy really fulfil its promise, it may further ratchet up Moscow`s aggressive posturing, especially in relation to its western neighbours, energy and the frozen conflicts. But this need not necessarily be so. Moscow`s recent constructive BSEC chairmanship suggests that the prospect of isolation can give way to a more cooperative attitude towards the EU in due course.

Lastly, and just as importantly, there is the issue of visibility and ‘branding` of the region. A new framework organising Black Sea cooperation should send a strong signal about the importance that the EU attaches to this region. At the same time, regional leadership must necessarily come from the region itself, not from Brussels. One indirect outcome of the new EU initiative, in this respect, has to be a more concerted effort of the littoral actors to enhance cooperation and promote the region at the wider European level.

May the meeting next week point the way in that direction.

By Fabrizio Tassinari, EU Observer

Fabrizio Tassinari, author of "A Synergy for Black Sea Regional Cooperation" (CEPS, 2006), is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Copenhagen, a non-resident Fellow at SAIS, Johns Hopkins University and at the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS), Brussels.

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