The Black Sea region is regarded as a ‘strategic bridge’ due to the region’s economic, geopolitical and trade corridors of strategic importance. The region connects to the Mediterranean Sea via the Marmara and Aegean Seas, Europe with Asia to the Caspian Sea, Central Asia and the Middle East, and south-east Asia and China. The Sea of Azov drains into the Black Sea through the Kerch Strait. The Dardanelles Strait is the passage between the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara. The Black Sea region is an important crossroads through which many goods transit, and accounts for more than 34% of natural gas and oil imports to the EU.
The wider Black Sea region comprises three European Union (EU) Member States (Bulgaria, Greece and Romania), three candidate countries for EU membership (Albania, Serbia, Turkey), five Eastern partner countries (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, the Republic of Moldova and Ukraine), and the Russian Federation. Hence the Black Sea directly borders the EU, accounting for half of its coastline. It is glaringly evident that any skirmishes in the Black Sea region will be a threat to regional stability.
Launched in 2004, the European Union’s European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) is aimed at bringing the EU and its neighbours closer for mutual benefits and interests. The policy focuses on regional stabilisation in political, socio-economic and security-related terms. The policy also provides flexibility in the use of financial assistance, enabling the EU to react more efficiently to new challenges, such as conflict and post-conflict needs, disaster response, and security. How and where does the wider Black Sea region, coming with its own set of varied issues and potential consequences, play into the ENP?
Black Sea’s Strategic Significance for the EU
Firstly, located at the crossroads between Europe and Asia, the Black Sea has been a zone of conflict, skirmish and confrontations. Contested borders, national and ethnic differences, migration, poor economies, authoritarian regimes and confrontations between outsiders for larger influence in the region are some of the threats that raise security concerns for the EU. Secondly, the region is of interest and concern to Russia, being that the Black Sea region is sensitive to external influence and security threats in the region.
The Black Sea region could provide solutions for energy supply diversification since it holds vast and unexplored potential for renewable energy. Wind, waves, salinity and solar energy could make the region emerge as a key element of Europe’s energy strategy. There is a considerable gap in the region between the actual and the prospective use of energy resources – both conventional and alternative – and this requires due attention and expedite action.
Moreover, non-traditional security threats such as environmental disasters, smuggling of drugs, people and guns across the region and demographic challenges, have the potential to threaten the functioning of the EU’s economic and political stability.
Since the end of the Cold War, countries in the region have created a multitude of intergovernmental and non-governmental organisations and cooperation schemes. The Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC) is one such initiative that focuses on fostering cooperation, peace, stability and prosperity in the region. Thus it is imperative to look into the EU’s engagement with BSEC to develop a regional approach towards the Black Sea.
The EU supports regional development in South-East Europe with its Black Sea Synergy initiative. Launched in 2007, the Black Sea Synergy encourages building confidence, fostering regional dialogue and achieving tangible results for states and citizens in the region. Since 2008, the EU has deployed a monitoring mission in Georgia (EUMM), under the European Security and Defence Policy. Further, the Eastern Partnership (EaP), formed in 2009 is a joint policy initiative that aims to deepen and strengthen relations between the European Union (EU), its Member States and its six Eastern neighbours (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine).
In June 2019, cooperation between the Black Sea region and the EU was in focus at the High-Level Conference on BSEC – EU Cooperation. The event was co-organised by BSEC’s Permanent International Secretariat (BSEC PERMIS) and the European Commission’s Directorate for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Negotiations (DG NEAR), within the framework and with the support of the Bulgarian BSEC Chairmanship-in-Office and the Romanian Presidency of the Council of the European Union. The main objective of the event was to underline the importance of BSEC–EU cooperation in the wider Black Sea region by promoting bottom-up economic policies with the direct involvement of the interested stakeholders (members of BSEC) and to indicate ways to further enhance the working relationship between the two entities in the immediate future.
On 2 July 2021, the European Commission and the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy outlined a proposal on ways to take forward priorities for cooperation with our Eastern partners in the years to come. This agenda is based on the five long-term objectives, with resilience at its core, as defined for the future of the Eastern Partnership in March 2020. As the core political framework guiding the relations between the EU and its neighbours, the ENP is of paramount importance. Its original objectives, such as creating a space of cooperation, stability and socio-economic progress are still valid.
Influencers of Regional Stability
Regarded as the first European war of the 21st century, Russia attacked Georgia following a period of worsening relations between the former constituent republics of the Soviet Union. In 2014, Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine, a move NATO still doesn’t recognise but that Russia has used to vastly expand its claims on waters and undersea gas and oil in the Black Sea. May 2021 witnessed Russia send more than 100,000 troops and their gear into Crimea and its western border with Ukraine. Moscow claimed the move was for a military exercise.
On 10 July, the 2021 iteration of the joint military exercise, Sea Breeze, concluded in the Black Sea. This exercise, which began on 28 June was co-hosted by the Ukrainian Navy and the United States Navy’s Sixth Fleet. The annual Exercise Sea Breeze consists of joint naval, land, and air training and operations centred around building increased shared capabilities in the Black Sea. NATO’s Sea Breeze 2021 naval exercise included participation from 32 countries, including NATO members and other countries that border the Black Sea. All other countries bordering the Black Sea were included in participating in the joint drills, except Russia. In response to the Sea Breeze drills, Russia conducted its own drills in the Black Sea, including the simulation of firing advanced missile systems against enemy aircraft.
Even if the US and NATO’s manoeuvres in the Black Sea do not ultimately materialise into a full-scale conflict with Russia, they will most likely damage not just recent diplomatic momentum, but future opportunities for a relationship between the EU, Russia and the US.
Moreover, entering into a conflict with Russia in the Black Sea would not only engage the US and the EU in a costly conflict but would hamper their security and diplomatic interests. Relations between the EU, US and Russia are a defining factor on whether cooperation in the Black Sea region will be enhanced, or the existing divisions emphasised.
Prioritising EU-Black Sea Regional Cooperation
On the one hand, the EU is not seen as a consistent actor with clear and credible objectives when it comes to the Black Sea region. On the other, most of the Black Sea countries desire more EU involvement in the region, perceiving the EU route as the most viable for regional prosperity, development, security and cooperation. As such, the Black Sea region will likely remain a strategic frontier for Europe, Russia and the US in terms of energy security, festering conflicts, trade links, migration and economic developments.
It is also important for international organisations such as the EU and NATO, which aim to make the areas beyond their external borders relatively stable while attempting to address the demands for further enlargement from their new neighbours across Central Europe and the Black Sea region. While regional cooperation is sought by the multiple stakeholders in the region, the institutionalisation of security and economic policies is what is at stake for the EU and its larger presence in the Black Sea region.
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Anzari, A. (2021) The State of Cooperation in the Black Sea Region, IDRN, 10 September. Available at: https://idrn.eu/international-security/the-state-of-cooperation-in-the-black-sea-region [Accessed dd/mm/yyyy].