A Need for Credible EU Strategy for the Eastern Partnership

Foto: Alvydas Kucas /​ shutterstock.com

As part of our project “Eastern Part­ner­ship 2.0” we publish a series of arti­cles about the three EU asso­ci­a­tion states (Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova). Three authors from the region (Paata Gaprindashvili, Mariam Tsit­sikashvili, Hennadiy Maksak, Angela Gramada) analyse the expec­ta­tions for the German Council Pres­i­dency as to the future shape of the Eastern Part­ner­ship from the perspec­tive of civil society.

By Paata Gaprindashvili & Mariam Tsitsikashvili

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))