A Need for Credible EU Strategy for the Eastern Partnership

Foto: Alvydas Kucas /​ shutterstock.com

Im Rahmen unseres Pro­jek­tes „Öst­li­che Part­ner­schaft 2.0“ ver­öf­fent­li­chen wir eine Arti­kel­reihe über die drei EU-Asso­­zi­ie­­rungs­­­staa­ten (Ukraine, Geor­gien, Moldau). Autorin­nen und Autoren aus der Region ( Paata Gaprin­da­sh­vili, Mariam Tsits­ikash­vili, Hennadiy Maksak, Angela Gramada) ana­ly­sie­ren die Erwar­tungen an die deutsche Rats­prä­si­dent­schaft hinsicht­lich der zukünf­tigen Ausge­stal­tung der Östlichen Part­ner­schaft aus zivil­ge­sell­schaft­li­cher Perspektive.

Launched in 2009, the Eastern Part­nership (EaP) has been instru­mental in bringing the EU and the six partner countries (Armenia, Azer­baijan, Belarus, Georgia, Republic of Moldova and Ukraine) closer together. Despite signi­fi­cant external and internal chal­lenges along the road, thus far the policy has demons­trated its ability to promote greater stability, prospe­rity and resi­li­ence at the EU’s eastern frontier.

The part­nership has sought to develop according to the interests, ambitions and progress of each partner, marked by Asso­cia­tion Agree­ments (AA), including the Deep and Compre­hen­sive Free Trade Areas (DCFTAs) as well as visa-free regimes with three partner countries (Georgia, Ukraine, Republic of Moldova – the EU Asso­ciated Trio) together with a Compre­hen­sive and Enhanced Part­nership Agreement with Armenia and a tailor-made enga­ge­ment with Azer­baijan and Belarus. The part­nership has inclu­si­vely delivered for all: EU-EaP trade has nearly doubled, turning the partner countries as a group into the EU’s tenth largest trading partner, creating or sustai­ning more than 250,000 jobs and enabling over 125,000 SMEs to benefit directly from EU funding.[1]

Crisis is the best test of friendship, and the EU has success­fully passed this test by swiftly holding out a helping hand to its EaP partners during the coro­na­virus outbreak. The European Commis­sion has mobilised an emergency support package for its EaP partners, compri­sing €80 million for immediate needs and up to €900 million in support for their short and medium term social and economic recovery.[2]

The EaP will even­tually play much more signi­fi­cant role for the EU poli­ti­cally, econo­mi­c­ally and in terms of security, perhaps even a greater role than that of the Western Balkans. The success of trans­for­ma­tion and demo­cra­ti­sa­tion in the EaP can offer up a positive example for other countries in the wider Eurasian continent, not to mention the fact that the EaP is key to the EU’s access to Central Asia.

EU Joint Commu­ni­ca­tion – New long-term policy objectives?

On March 18, 2020 the European Commis­sion and the High Repre­sen­ta­tive of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy put forward a proposal outlining new policy objec­tives for the Eastern Part­nership beyond 2020[3] that was later supported by the Council’s conclu­sions.[4] At a meeting of the Eastern Part­nership leaders held on 19 June 2020, heads of the EU and EaP states endorsed a new long-term policy framework to guide the EaP’s next decade. Both the joint commu­ni­ca­tion and the conclu­sions maintain the focus on the fields of the economy, good gover­nance and society, while envi­sa­ging greater support vis-à-vis ecolo­gical and digital transformations.

While its prio­ri­ties are very similar to those defined at the November 2017 EaP Summit, the new policy proposal outlines measures enabling a better response to the chal­lenges in the area of gover­nance. Notably, as the joint commu­ni­ca­tion stresses, the EU’s financial assi­s­tance for partners would be deter­mined by their progress in reforms streng­t­he­ning the rule of law.[5] The EU also commits itself to deve­lo­ping more robust moni­to­ring mecha­nisms and veri­fiable bench­marks for evalua­ting progress in the EaP. This incentive-based approach in conjunc­tion with the increased oversight could substan­ti­ally boost the EaP’s trans­for­ma­tive power, something that the “20 deli­ver­a­bles for 2020” found difficult to achieve in the field of the rule of law.

Within the renewed agenda vis-à-vis economic coope­ra­tion, the EU is commit­ting itself to support the efforts of partner countries to join the Single Euro Payment Area (SEPA), the benefits of which would include cheaper, safer and faster cross-border payments. More import­antly, the new policy framework provides for the EU to step up its part­nership with inter­na­tional financial insti­tu­tions even further and to develop an inno­va­tive and smart financing programme for the EaP countries. The EU’s readiness to help partner countries safeguard macroeco­nomic stability and incen­ti­vise struc­tural reforms through EU Macro-Financial Assi­s­tance is yet another commit­ment that supports the EaP’s aims in the economic domain.

In the context of digital trans­for­ma­tion, which is marked out as one of the policy prio­ri­ties, the EU commits itself to the extension of secure and very high capacity Gigabit broadband infra­st­ruc­tures in the EaP area and to suppor­ting intra-EaP roaming and spectrum agree­ments; however, still not embracing a roaming fees-free regime with them.

Despite its claim to be “new”, the proposed EaP policy framework contains little that can be regarded as genuinely novel: the only new initia­tive proposed relates to a “deal for youth”, which includes, among other things, the creation of a mobility and exchange programme for young profes­sio­nals from the EaP countries. Overall, the policy objec­tives proposed lack a strategic and genuinely future-oriented vision that would make the EU-EaP coope­ra­tion and inte­gra­tion process a real priority in the context of the EU’s own political, economic and security interests. In parti­cular, the new policy framework falls short of suppor­ting and promoting the process of deepening the part­nership between the EU and three asso­ciated partners as well as among the Trio (Georgia, Ukraine, Republic of Moldova) and of taking this part­nership to the next level.

Treat the regions equally 

Currently, the EU’s Eastern Part­nership does not foresee the accession of the partner countries to the Union. A month before publi­shing the new EaP policy framework, the Commis­sion brought out a similar commu­ni­ca­tion regarding the Western Balkans,[6] in which it acknow­ledges the fact that a credible accession perspec­tive is a key incentive and driver of demo­cratic trans­for­ma­tion in the Western Balkans. Yet the EU continues to ignore the impor­t­ance of such a perspec­tive in the case of the EaP. The new EaP policy framework can and should faci­li­tate a process of gradual inte­gra­tion into the EU with a renewed commit­ment by the partners to undertake further compre­hen­sive reforms. Without a clearly defined strategic goal, the EU risks jeopar­di­sing even the progress already achieved in the EaP. In this context, it is the European perspec­tive that can success­fully act as a catalyst for full-fledged demo­cra­ti­sa­tion and further reforms in the EaP region, as the European Parlia­ment acknow­ledged in its latest recom­men­da­tion to the Commis­sion and the Council.[7]

The major takeaway of the Eastern Part­nership leaders’ video confe­rence on 18 June 2020 was the decision to hold a physical summit in March 2021 at which they will again endorse five policy prio­ri­ties in a joint decla­ra­tion. However, the decla­ra­tion to be made at this summit should go beyond these prio­ri­ties. The EU should define strong objec­tives and identify mile­stones, as it did for the 2009–2017 period. These should provide for the conti­nuous and effective imple­men­ta­tion of the DCFTAs and compli­ance with legal, economic and technical regu­la­tions and standards leading to the gradual opening of the EU single market and the estab­lish­ment of a common economic space, as well as sectoral inte­gra­tion in key areas of common interest such as transport, digi­ta­li­sa­tion or the envi­ron­ment. The European Parliament’s recent reso­lu­tion encou­rages the use of such an approach, recom­men­ding that the EU should embark on a process of deeper economic coope­ra­tion between EaP countries and the EU using the path trodden with the Western Balkan countries.

For their part, the EaP’s asso­ciated partners should genuinely promote inclusive regional coope­ra­tion among them­selves and deepen regional economic inte­gra­tion based on EU rules and standards, thereby bringing the region and its companies closer to the EU single market. This would not only bring benefits to their citizens but also lead to a common regional posi­tio­ning which will be stronger and more persua­sive than the efforts on the part of indi­vi­dual countries to integrate with the EU.

The coming decade will see Russia and other rivals seeking to advance their ille­gi­ti­mate geopo­li­tical interests further in the EaP region and elsewhere. As is widely reco­gnised in the EU, the absence of a credible EU strategy towards the Western Balkans would reduce the EU’s credi­bi­lity and poten­ti­ally fuel natio­na­list rhetoric in the region in question, whilst opening the door to the influence of third-country powers, in parti­cular, Russia and China. This is even truer in the case of the EaP. Therefore, a strategic dialogue to be held with Russia, an idea that French President Macron enter­tained last year, should not provide the Kremlin with “guaran­tees on no further EU enlar­ge­ment”. Instead, the dialogue should serve and promote the EU’s legi­ti­mate strategic interests in its neigh­bour­hood. In short, the EU needs to develop a “new Ostpo­litik”, to use a term coined by German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, one aimed at iden­ti­fying new ways to cooperate with Russia in the interests of all European countries and at reaching out to EaP countries inde­pen­dent of the “Russian factor”.

During her visit to Georgia in August 2018, the German chan­cellor Angela Merkel named Georgia and Ukraine as the next potential pair of states with which the EU may start talks following the accession of the Western Balkan countries.[8] During its EU presi­dency, Germany needs to back up this statement and introduce merit-based dynamism to the EaP. The EaP should not remain merely an offer but become a credible and full-fledged European policy, indis­pensable for the EU’s credi­bi­lity as well as its influence in the region and beyond.

 

 

[1] Joint Commu­ni­ca­tion: Eastern Part­nership Policy Beyond 2020: Rein­for­cing Resi­li­ence – An Eastern Part­nership that Delivers for All. Available at https://eeas.europa.eu/headquarters/headquarters-homepage/76166/joint-communication-eastern-partnership-policy-beyond-2020-reinforcing-resilience-%E2%80%93-eastern_en

[2] The EU’s response to the coro­na­virus pandemic in the Eastern Part­nership. Available at https://ec.europa.eu/neighbourhood-enlargement/sites/near/files/coronavirus_support_eap.pdf

[3] Eastern Part­nership: Commis­sion Proposes New Policy Objec­tives for Beyond 2020. Available at https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/IP_20_452

[4] Eastern Part­nership Policy Beyond 2020: Council Approves Conclu­sions. Available at https://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/press/press-releases/2020/05/11/eastern-partnership-policy-beyond-2020-council-approves-conclusions/

[5] Eastern Part­nership Policy Beyond 2020: Rein­for­cing Resi­li­ence – an Eastern Part­nership that Delivers for All. Available at https://eeas.europa.eu/sites/eeas/files/1_en_act_part1_v6.pdf

[6] The European Commis­sion, “A More Credible, Dynamic, Predic­table and Political EU Accession Process – Commis­sion Lays Out its Proposals”. Available at https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/ip_20_181

[7] European Parlia­ment recom­men­da­tion to the Council, the Commis­sion and the Vice-President of the Commis­sion /​ High Repre­sen­ta­tive of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy on the Eastern Part­nership in the run-up to the June 2020 Summit. Available at https://www.europarl.europa.eu/doceo/document/A‑9–2020-0112_EN.html

[8] Paata Gaprin­da­sh­vili and Mariam Tsits­ikash­vili. “Ten Years Since the Russian-Georgian War: A New German ‘Ostpo­litik’ is Needed”. Available at http://iep-berlin.de/blog/10-years-since-the-russian-georgian-war-a-new-german-ostpolitik-is-needed/

 

Paata Gaprin­da­sh­vili & Mariam Tsits­ikash­vili (Georgia’s Reforms Asso­ciates (GRASS))