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What Kind of Sovereignty? Examining Alternative Governance Models in the South Caucasus

This is a speech which I gave to the Partnership for Peace consortium meeting in Reichenau, Austria, November 2013 (pdf).  It has been edited to improve readability.


The subject matter of our workshop is challenging, to say the least. But creative thinking is needed. There is a great temptation to accept the status quo in the South Caucasus as the norm – this is reflected in the language we use: “protracted”… “frozen”. But this would be a serious mistake. Resolution must be found to these unsustainable situations if we are to mitigate genuine, ongoing suffering and avert greater instability.

Of course, this is ultimately the responsibility of the parties to these conflicts. Sustainable solutions cannot be imposed from outside; nor can they be implemented without the consent of all those directly involved. But we outsiders have an interest and also, I would argue, a moral responsibility to provide whatever assistance we can to help the parties resolve their differences. We owe our presence here this evening to the readiness of our hosts to take on that responsibility.

I am here this evening as a representative of the European Union’s institutions. Although I am responsible for coordinating EU policy towards the South Caucasus, I don’t claim to be an expert in conflict resolution, nor indeed in the history or politics of the conflicts in this region. So I thought I would talk about the European Union itself, and what its experience can tell us about governance and the thorny issue of sovereignty.

The EU: an experiment in conflict resolution

Let me start with two quotations.

The first was made by Sir John Boyd Orr, a Scottish statesman of the mid-20th century who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1949 for his work in setting up the institutions of the United Nations. He said:

“We are now physically, politically, and economically one world and nations so interdependent that the absolute national sovereignty of nations is no longer possible.”

The second quote comes from the current President of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso. He said that:

“In the age of globalisation, pooled sovereignty means more power, not less.”

Orr was of the generation of Europeans who saw that an alternative had to be found to the national rivalries which had diverted so much energy into warfare. Men such as Jean Monnet, Robert Schuman and Altiero Spinelli dreamed of, and then delivered, a new form of governance which pooled sovereignty in a way which made centuries of terrible European conflicts – which had become our status quo – a practical impossibility. They saw that a radical departure from the nation state was required. The result of their efforts was the establishment of the European Communities, which over the subsequent sixty years has evolved into the European Union. Not only did the EU’s new institutions put control of the machinery of total war beyond the control of any one member state; the architecture of this new concept in governance brought officials and politicians from former enemies together in a systematic way so that the notion of a new war between these ancient, traditional rivals became simply inconceivable. It was this pooling of sovereignty which changed the reality of life on the European continent; it was this which earned the European Union the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012. The Nobel Committee’s decision was controversial, also within Europe itself – but I firmly believe that it was deserved. When one looks at today’s European Union – at the daily rhythm of committees, working groups, Councils and subcommittees, bringing officials and politicians together from all across Europe and at all levels – it is hard to imagine the circumstances that allowed our parents’ and grandparents’ generations to launch wars of total annihilation against each other.

In our system, national officials are always meeting their counterparts in other nations, and at the European level. It is these daily contacts, these habits of collaboration, which in my view constitute the real strength of the EU as a force for peace in Europe.

It would be wrong of me to talk about this process of integration without also tackling the issue of consent. The degree to which the countries of the EU have pooled their sovereignty is not universally popular. Many of the EU’s citizens still see the EU as an elite project which erodes their country’s sovereignty. The EU’s raison d’être – the sustainable resolution of Europe’s conflicts – loses its potency over the generations, as our collective memory of the World Wars fades and as we grow to treat our peaceful coexistence as the natural order of things. In a way, we are a victim of our own success, and this in itself brings the risk of new instability. We must acknowledge this and bear it carefully in mind when we draw lessons from the EU’s experience and seek to apply them to the South Caucasus.

The EU’s experience in tackling regional conflicts

Turning then to the South Caucasus, what can the EU’s experience over the last sixty years tell us about the role of sovereignty in tackling this region’s conflicts?

One place to start is to look at the regional conflicts which exist within the EU’s own territory. Two bitter and bloody conflicts with historical roots going back centuries are those in Northern Ireland and in the Basque region. In both cases, it looks as if we have witnessed a genuine end to violence and a move towards a sustainable, negotiated settlement. I will leave it to experts to draw detailed conclusions on why this has happened, and I don’t want to overstate the influence of the European Union. But it does seem to me that the EU has had some role to play in creating the conditions which have allowed the parties to these conflicts to overcome their differences and choose the path of peace. The EU has helped to mitigate some of the factors which got in the way of conflict resolution. Communities in these regions felt that they were at risk of losing their unique identity. They felt disenfranchised, they felt that they were unfairly treated, and they felt that they did not have a voice in government. There was distrust on all sides. In many ways, small and large, participation in the great experiment of pooling national sovereignty at the European level has helped to address these issues over time. Gradually, in addition to their regional or national identities, people have begun to identify themselves also as European citizens, with the same rights and freedoms under the Treaty. Many EU policies have contributed to this process. People have become accustomed to seeing decisions taken at various levels – regional, national, European – and subsidiarity has been established in the Treaty as a fundamental guiding principle. The old logic of absolute national sovereignty no longer seems to hold, and this sheds a new light on the question of what constitutes a nation. At a practical level, if the same rules and the same values apply across the EU, the case for separatism becomes less urgent. Within the EU, people to people links are promoted. Students from one region or country spend time studying elsewhere; members of civil society meet their counterparts; cooperation at regional level is promoted. As I’ve already argued, the sheer bureaucratic process of running the EU itself contributes to a new reality: civil servants meet regularly; they get to know one another. Old animosities might not always die away completely, but they fade in the face of familiarity. Both in the case of Northern Ireland, and in the Basque region, I believe generational change has contributed to an altered perception of what constitutes normality, and that has in turn contributed to a shifting of red lines.

Of course, the process of European integration does not mean the homogenisation of the continent’s cultural diversity, or an end to the desire for national self-expression – far from it. But it provides a context in which these natural desires can find more sustainable, less conflictual expression. Next year, for example, we will watch as the people of Scotland vote whether or not to reassert their national independence after over 300 years of union with England and Wales. A vote for Scottish independence would be momentous, no doubt about it; but, within the EU, the practical implications would be less drastic than they might otherwise be. By contrast, in many ways, a decision by the UK (with or without Scotland) to leave the European Union – also a real possibility – would have far more serious implications.

The EU as a model for the South Caucasus

So the EU’s experience tells us that the pooling of sovereignty can offer a relatively safe way to address the concerns of minorities in conflict regions without necessarily crossing red lines – such as territorial integrity, or self-determination. But it has taken the countries of Europe a long time – and a great deal of suffering – to get to this point. And many continue to harbour doubts over this surrender of national sovereignty to a supranational organisation. Some of Europe’s leaders are seriously advocating a repatriation of powers from the European to the national level. So why should the countries and regions of the South Caucasus copy the EU’s model?

The South Caucasus was itself of course the scene of an earlier experimentation in the transfer of national sovereignty – as part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. This experiment ultimately failed, and one might expect that those countries that went through the experience would have no appetite for further experimentation. But the story of the Baltic States which joined the EU in 2004 suggests otherwise. Some “eurosceptics” in my home country call the European Union the “EUSSR” – but of course this is not a fair reflection of the reality. There are key differences which mean that the pooling of sovereignty – while not universally popular – has been able to deliver in crucial ways. The most fundamental of these is the rule of law: the Treaty clearly defines what the EU can and can’t do, and provides mechanisms and institutions to ensure that the rules are applied fairly. The Treaty also sets out the EU’s fundamental values, enshrining the rights of its citizens. Furthermore, the Treaty establishes a series of checks and balances to ensure than no one country becomes too dominant, and to deliver a high degree of democratic accountability. Of course, it is not perfect, but it does seek to tackle these key issues head on. The same issues would need to be addressed in the context of the South Caucasus. The rule of law, and due process, are essential for a successful conflict resolution process; so, too, are fundamental freedoms. Steady implementation of reforms, including the building of democratic state institutions, must be a priority.

Which brings me to the role of the European Union itself in the process of conflict resolution in the South Caucasus. The EU and its member states have a clear interest in finding a sustainable solution to these regional conflicts. The Caucasus, where Europe meets Asia, is a region of immense geo-strategic significance. Instability in this region affects the stability, security and prosperity of the whole of Europe. Energy security is of course a major concern, but far from the only concern. Using the EU’s instruments to promote the resolution of the South Caucasus’ conflicts is a high priority for the European Union.

The Eastern Partnership

For a number of years, the EU has adopted a number of policy approaches to strengthen its links to the South Caucasus and to promote conflict resolution.

Some of these will be very familiar to you: for example, the appointment of an EU Special Representative for the South Caucasus and the Conflict in Georgia – a roving Ambassador dedicated to assisting the process of conflict resolution. I know that Ambassador Lefort has attended this event previously, and many of you will know him well.

Additionally, the EU deploys a civilian mission under its Common Security and Defence Policy – the EU Monitoring Mission – in Georgia, to help secure the ceasefire brokered by President Sarkozy after the 2008 conflict in Georgia. This, and the EU’s ongoing co-chairmanship of the Geneva Talks, are a demonstration of the EU’s commitment to resolving these regional conflicts.

The EU also deploys a host of other policies to deepen its relationship with the South Caucasus. They range from financial assistance to sectoral cooperation (transport, health, education, environment, energy, etc) to mobility, and so on.

In the first half of the last decade, most of these were swept up into the new European Neighbourhood Policy, the umbrella policy which defines the way in which the EU interacts with its new neighbours to the East and South following the ‘big bang’ enlargement of 2004. Over the following few years, a consensus emerged that the EU should develop a more targeted policy towards its eastern neighbours. This was launched as the Eastern Partnership at a Summit in Prague in 2009. The six countries of the Eastern Partnership are Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova, and Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan.

The Eastern Partnership gives us a framework for our relations with these six countries. The aim is the political association and economic integration of the six Eastern Partnership countries with the EU. This allows us a higher degree of ambition, locking us into a regular rhythm of Summits – every two years, the next coming up in three weeks’ time in Vilnius – and a roadmap of concrete projects. Perhaps the most concrete of these is plan to replace the now ageing Partnership and Cooperation Agreements which currently give us the legal basis for our bilateral relations. Over the past four years, the EU has negotiated Association Agreements, including Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Areas, with Moldova, Ukraine, Georgia, and Armenia. At Vilnius we hope to sign the agreements with Ukraine and initial the Agreements with Moldova and Georgia. We are also negotiating an Association Agreement with Azerbaijan. Additionally, we are pursuing visa facilitation and ultimately visa liberalisation within the Eastern Partnership with a view to improving mobility and building people to people contacts.

Since 2012, the Eastern Partnership has been founded firmly upon the objective of building deep democracy. It sees that the purpose of the Neighbourhood Policy – to build security, stability and prosperity in the EU’s Neighbourhood – can only be fulfilled sustainably within a context of respect for fundamental freedoms and core values. So EU assistance and cooperation is focused on building institutions which deliver the rule of law. Under the so-called “more for more” principle, partners who meet or exceed our agreed reform targets benefit from additional EU assistance.

So the same processes which have been at work within the EU over the past six decades are already at work in the South Caucasus. The progressive implementation of the Eastern Partnership will see the region increasingly integrate into European structures. These will alter existing governance models and change the context within which conflict resolution takes place. We will see this first of all in Georgia, as it finalises and then implements the new Association Agreement and Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area. The reforms required to deliver this will have far-reaching implications for Georgian society.

Let’s be clear: we are not talking about membership of the European Union. While we acknowledge Georgia’s desire for a future with the EU, there is still a long way to go before this can be contemplated. But the reality is that full implementation of these new agreements will effectively deliver many of the benefits of EU membership. There will indeed be some pooling of sovereignty; but, as President Barroso said, this can deliver more, not less, power. This changes the status quo and offers a real opportunity to break the stalemates which block progress in the resolution of the region’s conflicts.

We must also acknowledge that not all our Eastern Partners are alike, and they don’t all share the same vision. Azerbaijan does not seek a European perspective; and Armenia has decided to join the Moscow-led Customs Union. It may be that this correspondingly limits the potential of the EU to influence the conflict resolution process in these two countries. But there is still a great deal that we can accomplish together. The EU remains committed to supporting the reform process in both countries, and we will pursue our engagement with them. This includes enhanced mobility and other people-to-people links; a focus on institution building, regional cooperation, and support for reforms which underpin deep democracy. This engagement can itself deliver results in the field of conflict resolution, directly and indirectly.


Some people, when they look at the South Caucasus in 2013, see a stage for a geopolitical struggle between two great power blocs. I would argue that this anachronistic thinking fundamentally misunderstands the nature of the European Union. The EU is itself a great experiment in delivering regional stability by redefining sovereignty. Sixty years of peace and stability on most of our continent are a testament to the power of this alternative governance model. While it is perhaps too much to expect that it can be lifted and transposed perfectly to the South Caucasus, it does nevertheless represent a model which might offer a way forward to tackle the long-term challenges facing the region. The EU’s experiments in policy solutions could be emulated in the South Caucasus, building confidence and trust across national and regional boundaries, and establishing processes which gradually shift the entire context of the conflict resolution process. But, perhaps even more significantly, the EU’s offer of political association and economic integration can fast track this process, creating new realities as our partners align themselves to the European Union. I think that Europe’s history over the last half century gives us grounds for optimism.