EU diplomacy could facilitate a conflict settlement process by pressuring Armenia and Azerbaijan to start implementing the Madrid Principles.

As Armenia and Azerbaijan engage in another small war around Nagorno-Karabakh, many eyes have turned to the European Union and its member states in expectation of some diplomatic initiative that could help end the conflict. Approximately 15 years ago, the EU made a serious attempt to mediate the dispute between the two countries. And it largely failed. After this failure, the EU largely gave up trying to influence the course of the conflict. If the EU is serious about preventing another war around Nagorno-Karabakh in a few months or years, it will have to be much more systematic about pressing both Armenia and Azerbaijan to reach a negotiated solution – a solution whereby control of land takes place through talks in negotiation rooms, not on the battlefield.

In 2006 European Commissioner for External Relations Benita Ferrero-Waldner stated in a speech at Bled, in Slovenia, that “the last weeks and months have shown worrying trends in the South Caucasus. Three negative strands are coming together, the combination of which is, frankly, alarming. First, we have seen little or no progress towards settling any of the frozen conflicts – Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh, South Ossetia. All parties have failed to deliver on their responsibility to find a solution. Second, defence expenditure in the region is going through the roof … Third, increasingly inflammatory rhetoric, as we have seen over the past months, is shaping public opinion in a counterproductive direction. There is a serious danger of the rhetoric lowering the threshold for war.” Ferrero-Waldner’s warnings proved to be prescient several times: in 2008 in Georgia, and repeatedly around Nagorno-Karabakh.

The EU has tried to play a bigger role in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict since then. But common EU policy quickly became bogged down in multiple disagreements within the bloc and between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

The EU’s neutrality game

One key reason why the EU never became a stronger player in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict settlement process is that neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan asked for its involvement. Armenia did not want to irritate Russia by pushing too hard for a larger EU role. And, in the mid-2000s, Azerbaijan started to have qualms about the bloc’s attempts to demonstrate its neutrality – efforts that sometimes led to European diplomatic choreography that was too clever by half.

In 2005, as part of its outreach to the South Caucasus and development of the European Neighbourhood Policy, the EU asked Armenia and Azerbaijan to sign action plans outlining areas of cooperation, which covered dozens of sectors. When negotiating these plans, the EU wanted to avoid mentions of the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, which could politicise the exercise. But Azerbaijan insisted on a reference whereby the EU explicitly recognised the country’s territorial integrity – its sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh and seven surrounding districts occupied by Armenia. But the EU was reluctant to do so, which irked Azerbaijan. (In fairness to the EU, its approach accounted for the possibility that Nagorno-Karabakh might have the kind of special status that Armenia and Azerbaijan had discussed with the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s Minsk Group.)

By mid-2007, Azerbaijan was becoming increasingly sceptical of the international community’s role in the conflict settlement process.

In parallel, Azerbaijan and Cyprus tumbled into a diplomatic dispute over an Azerbaijani charter flight and Baku’s possible recognition of north Cyprus passports. Cyprus blocked talks on the action plan with Azerbaijan for more than half a year – prompting the EU to suspend its discussions with Armenia and Georgia, lest they fall out of sync.

Cyprus then supported Azerbaijani calls for the action plans to reference the territorial integrity of signatory states – reflecting the two countries’ shared interest in regaining control of occupied territory. As a result, the EU-Azerbaijan Action Plan based the sides’ relations on a mutual commitment to “common values, including the respect of and support for the sovereignty, territorial integrity and inviolability of internationally recognised borders of each other.”

However, this was not the end of the story. To maintain a degree of neutrality between Azerbaijan’s and Armenia’s competing agendas, the EU-Armenia Action Plan contained a reference to the need to pursue “conflict settlement efforts on the basis of international norms and principles, including the principle of self-determination of peoples”. This seemed to imply that Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity was not inviolable after all. And it contrasted with the EU’s action plans with both Moldova and Georgia, in which the bloc’s support for territorial integrity was unambiguous and unqualified.

During one of my visits to Baku at the time, an Azerbaijani diplomat complained to me that, “during the negotiations on the action plan, Azerbaijan witnessed for the first time that the EU sees Nagorno-Karabakh differently from the conflicts in Moldova and Georgia. In those countries, the EU unambiguously supports their territorial integrity – while, here in Azerbaijan, the EU claims that it supports ours but at the same time says it does not preclude any status for the region.” Things only went downhill from there.

The EU and the Minsk Group

The EU’s appointment of a special representative to the South Caucasus in 2003 raised expectations about the bloc’s role there. Heikki Talvitie and Peter Semneby, the first two special representatives, restlessly searched for ways to make the EU a stronger actor in the region. These heightened expectations prompted much speculation across the EU and the South Caucasus that the bloc could replace France as a co-chair of the Minsk Group for the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict (the other two co-chairs are Russia and the United States). But Paris never offered Brussels a chance to take over, so this speculation soon subsided.

The EU then tried to look into ways to implement some assistance and confidence building projects in South Caucasus warzones, as a way to contribute to conflict settlement. This approach somewhat worked in Abkhazia and South Ossetia (with Georgian acquiescence), but hit a wall in Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan was unwilling to let the international community engage with Nagorno-Karabakh’s de facto authorities.

Unable to help with conflict settlement, Brussels offered to provide assistance after the conflict ended. Semneby stated that the EU “will be expected to make a major contribution when a solution is found, and we are looking into the possibilities we have, both in terms of post-conflict rehabilitation and also – if the parties should so desire – in terms of contributing peacekeepers. And possibly even leading a peacekeeping operation.” Yet, since there was no deal between Azerbaijan and Armenia, there was no need for peacekeepers.

By mid-2007, Azerbaijan was becoming increasingly sceptical of the international community’s role in the conflict settlement process. That scepticism led to massive investments in the military, bellicose rhetoric, and disillusionment with diplomatic talks.

The final blow to the EU’s hopes to help with the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict settlement process came when most of its member states recognised Kosovo’s independence in February 2008. These moves undermined Azerbaijan’s belief that the international community would defend its territorial integrity in line with international law. Azerbaijan also soured on the idea of peacekeepers. Many in Azerbaijan saw that Serbia had initially accepted and legitimised UN forces in Kosovo, only for these forces to help steer Kosovo towards independence and international recognition. Due to all these factors, Azerbaijan increasingly sought to end the conflict through the use of military force.

What next?

Eventually, the current round of fighting will give way to re-energised diplomacy designed to implement the so-called Madrid Principles. Under these principles, Armenia would cede control of seven occupied Azerbaijani districts, but maintain a land corridor to Nagorno-Karabakh and engage in talks on the status of the region. EU diplomacy could facilitate the process by putting much more pressure on both Armenia and Azerbaijan to start implementing the Madrid Principles. If there is progress in this, the EU might be in demand once again to contribute either to peacekeeping operations or a post-conflict reconstruction fund, or to organise a donors’ conference that incentivises Armenia and Azerbaijan to start implementing the principles. But, the EU can only provide such help with the consent of Armenia, Azerbaijan, the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs, and now Ankara (given its support for Baku). And, in this sense, the conditions for the EU to have a substantive impact on the conflict are not much better than they were a decade and a half ago.

Read more on: Europe and the world , Wider Europe

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.