Commentary: The visit of President Aliev to Brussels this week has been very positively assessed in both Brussels and Baku, however this relationship is not an automatic fit, and it will take time and effort on both sides for relations to develop to the qualitative higher level that the two sides want. But what is abundantly clear to both sides is that, this notwithstanding, Azerbaijan and the EU have much to benefit from a strong relationship, and also much to contribute.
President Ilham Aliev of Azerbaijan visited Brussels on Monday (6 February) for meetings with the leadership of the European Union. The visit was hailed in both Brussels and Baku as the start of a new phase in EU-Azerbaijan relations. President Aliev met with EU Council President Donald Tusk, EU Commission President Junker, High Representative Morgherini and other EU officials. The visit has been very positvely assessed in both Brussels and Baku.
As a result of the visit, Azerbaijan and the European Union immediately started negotiations on a new agreement between them that "will broaden the scope of co-operation and upgrade relations to a new level".
Speaking at a joint press briefing President Tusk started by re-affirming the support of the European Union for the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Azerbaijan. President Tusk reminded that the EU is the main trading partner of Azerbaijan, and said that the discussions focussed on how the EU can help to diversify Azerbaijan's economy.
Referring to human rights issues, Donald Tusk said that the EU always highlights the importance it attaches to human rights and fundamental freedoms, including freedom of expression. "The EU believes an open society is the best guarantor for stability and prosperity" he added.
On Nagorno-Karabakh President Tusk said that the status quo is unacceptable, and the EU believes there is no military solution to this conflict but there should be a political solution based on international law. The President of the EU Council said that the EU wants to broaden the scope of its relations with Azerbaijan and negotiations to upgrade the existing agreement will start immediately.
Replying to the comments of President Tusk, President Aliev thanked the European Union for its support for the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan and reminded that a large chunk of Azerbaijani territory remains under occupation.
Speaking in English, President Aliev said a new chapter was opening in EU-Azerbaijan co-operation. He welcomed the start of negotiations on a new agreement tomorrow, and said the negotiators should hurry and not lose time in order that a new strategic phase in EU-Azerbaijan relations may start soon.
Azerbaijan and the European Union have had relations since 1992. In 1999 they signed a Partnership and Co-operation Agreement, and this remains the basis of the relations up to now. Azerbaijan was offered an Association Agreement similar to the one signed in 2014 with Georgia, but politely declined. Indeed, for the last few years relations have been strained, mainly as a result of differences on issues related to governance and human rights. Azerbaijan took exception to several statements made by the European Parliament - and by individual MEPs on this topic. These are lingering problems. President Aliev cancelled at the last minute a meeting with the new president of the European Parliament, Antonio Tajani. The reason it seems was a meeting held at the parliament, on the margins of the visit, hosted by several MEPs, that focused on the country's human rights shortcomings. Some observers considered this an over-reaction, since the parliament hosts dozens of meetings every week on a whole range of issues and the Parliament sees this as part of its mission to be a hub for diverse views.
The incident highlighted the fact that relations between the EU and Azerbaijan may not necessarily be an automatic fit. It will take time and effort on both sides for them to develop to the qualitative higher level that the two sides want. But what is abundantly clear to both sides is that, this notwithstanding, Azerbaijan and the EU have much to benefit from a strong relationship, and also much contribute to. For Europe, Azerbaijan is an important part of its strategy to ensure energy security - not only thanks to its own natural resources, but also because of its location as an energy transit country. Azerbaijan is also a reliable partner in the fight against terrorism and radicalisation. On its part Europe is Azerbaijan's most important trade partner, and Azerbaijan sees Europe as an important part of its efforts to modernise and diversify its economy. Europe is also an important counterweight to a creeping Russian influence, at least in the non-military sphere. The statement of president Tusk committing EU support for Azerbaijan's territorial integrity was not a new development, but for Baku, it is a message always worth repeating.
In some circles in Europe, as well as in Azerbaijan there is concern that the EU may not be doing enough to push the human rights and democracy agenda in Azerbaijan. There may be differences of view on tactics, but it should be clearly evident to everybody that a better relationship between the EU and Azerbaijan can only benefit those defending human rights and fundamental freedoms. As Azerbaijan enters a challenging time in its process of reform and economic transformation the European Union is the best placed international partner to accompany it on this journey. The work on the new agreement should therefore proceed in earnest in order to give the relations a sound legal basis, and in order to provide for the necessary spaces where both sides can address problems as friends and partners.
This commentary was prepared by the editorial team of Caucasus Concise, with data collected from commonspace.eu. Commonspace.eu ran a live blog during the visit of president Ilham Aliev to Brussels on 6 February with comments from experts in Baku and Brussels. You may read the blog here.
Photo: President Aliev of Azerbaijan and the President of the European Council Donald Tusk, at a press brieifing in Brussels on 6 February 2017. (picture courtesy of the EU press service)