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))