Giving Up On Europe? How The European Union Can Re-Engage With Armenians

By Julien Trehet

The European Union’s (EU) engagement with Armenia has always been a thorny issue in the minds of many bureaucrats in Brussels and Yerevan. Bilateral relations between the EU and Armenia have been consistently framed as part of a sensitive geopolitical environment in which the main regional power, Russia, perceives EU neighbourhood policies as being part of a grand strategy to assert authority in a region that is traditionally considered as a part of its sphere of influence, or ‘Near Abroad’ as it is commonly referred to (Rak, 2017). Besides, being embroiled in a bloody war with its neighbour Azerbaijan, Armenian officials do not want to risk to upset the military balance by deepening political relations with the EU, as they receive heavy militarily backing by Russia.

It took some years for Brussels to re-launch negotiations with Yerevan about reinforcing bilateral relations. The so-called Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement (CEPA) signed on 24 November 2017 is a sign of renewed engagement with the EU (EEAS, 2017). Now that Armenia is part of the Eurasian Economic Union, Moscow arguably perceives engagement with Europe in a less aggressive way, thus opening up the way for improved relations with European partners. Nevertheless, many obstacles remain for a deeper and more comprehensive engagement.

One such hurdle to further cooperation is the relative distance between ordinary citizens and European Union policies. Indeed, according to the 2017 census of the Caucasus Barometer (CRRC, 2017), 47% of respondents mentioned that ordinary citizens would not benefit from the CEPA and a further 20% acknowledged never hearing about the agreement. Moreover, and more alarmingly, trust in the European Union has been gradually declining over the years (Figure 1). Indeed, whereas 45% of respondents trusted the EU in 2008, this number faltered to 29% in 2017, almost as much as the respondents expressing distrust towards the EU (28%). Many factors can be attributable to this fall in trust, such as perceived imposition of EU rules and lack of ownership in values by ordinary citizens, as well as Russian-led disinformation campaigns in Armenia (Poghosyan, 2018).

Figure 1. Trust towards EU

Aware of the first criticism, policymakers in Brussels have tried to ensure that the new agreement would be tailored to address Armenia’s specific development needs. However, various people remain sceptical as to the value of its implementation. With regard to implementation of democratisation standards, the understanding of the status of EU-Armenia relations both in Brussels and in Yerevan is detrimental to the pursuit of needed reforms. Indeed, if assistance is equated with imposition, or if advice means obligation, this (mis)interpretation will affect policy the implementation of the agreement. Reflecting this lack of ownership in negotiations with the EU is the relative misunderstanding of the European Union by the public at large in Armenia. Among those opposing EU membership, the main reasons used to justify their position was the fear that it will not benefit Armenia (49%), that it will restrain Armenia’s independence (12%) and harm Armenia’s culture and traditions (12%) (Figure 2).

In the light of these findings, it is easy to see why the implementation of the set of political conditionalities advocated by the EU, such as democratic reforms, remains somehow problematic as their implementation not only depends on the political will of the government in place but also runs the risk of being perceived as the imposition of foreign values by ordinary citizens (Freire & Simão, 2013). In this perspective, in order to maximise the effectiveness of the implementation of the agreement, the ‘step-by-step’ approach advocated by Bulgaria with regards to its Balkan neighbours can prove to be a better model for a deeper engagement with Armenia (Ministry of the Bulgarian Presidency of the EU Council, 2018).

Figure 2. Main reasons for not supporting Armenia's membership in the EU

This approach would see the implementation of less controversial areas of cooperation, such as improving the connectivity between the EU and Armenia. For instance, working towards the reduction and elimination of roaming charges in Armenia would help improve digital connectivity. Similarly, liberalising the airspace by allowing cheaper flight tickets to Armenia would not only help the development of the tourism industry in Armenia, one of the current priorities of the government (Ministry of Economic Development and Investment, 2017), but would also foster people’s connections from both sides. Finally, a visa liberalisation regime, as the one implemented in Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia, would contribute to dissipate the administrative border existing between Europe and Armenia thus allowing a rapprochement between the two sides. Moreover, a more calibrated communication campaign about the benefits of enhanced trade with the EU would foster an understanding about the benefits of trade to ordinary citizens.

In the light of the presented evidence, it is clear that the EU should focus on reaching out to ordinary citizens if it is to engage meaningfully with Armenia. Important steps have been taken to address the ‘one-size-fit-all’ stigma associated with the European neighbourhood policy, through, for example, emphasising links in the business area, civil society and cross-cultural spheres. Continued engagement in these spheres whilst developing an effective communication campaign which would highlight the advantages of cooperation for ordinary citizens will allow for a more meaningful relations between Brussels and Armenian citizens.


EUROPEAN EXTERNAL ACTION SERVICE (2017, November). ‘Comprehensive & Enhanced Partnership Agreement between the European Union & Armenia (CEPA)’. Retrieved from:
FREIRE, M. R., AND SIMAO, L. (2013). ‘“From Words to Deeds”: European Union Democracy Promotion in Armenia’. East European Politics, 29(2): 175-189.
MINISTRY OF ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT AND INDUSTRY OF ARMENIA (2017). Tourism Development of the RA: Vision, Strategy, Action Plan 2017. Retrieved from:
POGHOSYAN, B. (2018). ‘Tailor-made cooperation? Armenia's new partnership agreement with the EU’. European Policy Centre, Policy Brief, 15 February 2018. Retrieved from:
RAK, J. (2017). ‘Russia, ‘Near Abroad’, and the West: Struggling with the Research Field of Geopolitical Cultures’. Geopolitics, 22(4): 984-990.

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