Engagement with civil society has long been a prominent feature of European Union’s (EU) cooperation with the Eastern neighborhood within the framework of the two policies – European Neighborhood Policy (ENP) and Eastern Partnership Agreement (EaP). The Association Agreement (AA) proposed in 2010 sought to further boost the role of non-government actors in the mutual relationship by offering a closer partnership between the EU and its Eastern neighbors, including Azerbaijan. However, Azerbaijani authorities unilaterally decided to withdraw from the talks and instead, three years later, suggested a Strategic Modernization cooperation agreement that was expected to exclude
problematic issues related to democratic development in the country1. The crackdown against the country’s civil society launched by the government of Azerbaijan in 2014 (and which continues today) further complicated the plans to have the civil society play an increased role in the mutual relationship with Europe.
Considering these new challenges, the EU is offering to refocus the relations with its neighbors in order to address the political priorities regarded by both sides as the basis of the partnership. The aim is to involve member states more intensively in the definition and
implementation of policy in neighborhood countries. The new ENP will introduce some new working methods, including the abolition of the traditional annual package of country reports. It will also seek to deploy the available financial resources in a more flexible manner, so that the EU can react more swiftly to new challenges in the neighborhood. Stronger engagement with civil society is also foreseen.
This policy brief offers answers to the following questions and suggest recommendations to the stakeholders of the negotiation process:
• The ENP has extended the EU’s influence in some respects, but in a number of areas, the reform agenda has stalled, partially due to competing interests, and partially because some partners are not seemingly interested in having a special partnership with the EU with the
focus on the protection and strengthening of human rights. To what extent is Azerbaijan interested in deepening relations with the EU?
• President Juncker decided that the ENP would be reviewed within the first year of the new Commission’s mandate. EU Member States have also called for a review, and have already made proposals. Partner countries have expressed the need to revisit the policy; as have external stakeholders, including civil society organizations. How can the interest and participation of civil society best be ensured in the new policy?
• Although the concept of differentiation has been present from the start, Azerbaijani society does not always find its specific aspirations sufficiently reflected with regards to benchmarks for improving the human rights situation in the country. The lack of a sense of shared ownership with the partners is preventing the EU policy from achieving its full potential. Has Azerbaijan presented a visible sense of shared ownership in the EU-Azerbaijan strategic partnership?
• The ENP has developed and applied tools for closer political association and economic integration of partners aspiring towards this goal, including far-reaching agreements such as the Association Agreements and the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Areas (AAs/DCFTAs) which have been in effect in Georgia and Ukraine for almost two years and can point to visible successes on the ground. Are the Association Agreements and DCFTAs the right objectives for all or should more tailor-made alternatives be developed, to reflect the differing interests and ambitions of some partners, in our case that of Azerbaijan?
• How should the EU/ENP further develop engagement with civil society in its widest sense? What room is there for a specific policy for engagement of civil society in Azerbaijan since the overall environment for civil society cooperation has been effectively restricted in the
country? How can the Strategic Partnership initiative create a space within which civil society can legitimize its institutional engagement as part of the wider European integration process?