Eastern Part­ner­ship and Ukraine: the marriage of convenience

Design: euneighbourseast.eu

This Wednesday, the Eastern Part­ner­ship Summit will take place for the first time in four years. On this occasion, Iryna Solonenko, Senior Fellow at the Center for Liberal Modernity, sheds light on the signif­i­cance of the project specif­i­cally from Ukraine’s perspective.

What Eastern Part­ner­ship is and is not

When the Eastern Part­ner­ship was launched in 2009, Ukraine reacted with a lack of enthu­siasm. The initia­tive had no added value to the already advanced (compared to other EaP members) EU-Ukraine bilateral agenda. Ukraine already nego­ti­ated the Asso­ci­a­tion Agreement (AA), including the Deep and Compre­hen­sive Free Trade Area (DCFTA), with the EU and the prospect of the visa-free travel to the Schengen Area was also on the table when the newly launched EaP expanded this offer to all six Eastern neighbours.

Moreover, the EaP did not contain any response to the strategic issue of the prospect of EU member­ship, which Ukraine has offi­cially aspired to since 1998 (when the national strategy of inte­gra­tion with the EU was adopted). Was the EaP a substi­tute for potential EU member­ship or an inter­me­diary step towards it? This was and remains open for inter­pre­ta­tions. This lack of strategic vision behind the EaP arguably weakens the EU’s “trans­for­ma­tive power” towards the East European neigh­bours, which is demon­strated in the case of its “big-bang” enlarge­ment (whereby ten Central and Eastern European countries joined the bloc in 2004, followed by Bulgaria and Romania in 2007). This results in visible discrep­ancy or strong asymmetry between the inte­gra­tion offer (which is weak) and the scope of “homework” of the EaP countries, whereby they have to incor­po­rate into domestic legis­la­tion the scope of the EU’s common market acquis close to that of the accession countries. This setup is not suffi­ciently moti­vating (if not demo­ti­vating) for Ukraine.

On the positive side, it was welcomed that a separate initia­tive towards Eastern neigh­bours was launched within a broader European Neigh­bour­hood Policy covering 16 EU neigh­bours in the East and South. After all, the post-Soviet countries in Eastern Europe did not have much in common with the countries of the South Mediter­ranean. Moreover, since the initia­tive was launched as the reaction to the Russian-Georgian war in 2018, one could see this project as having a geopo­lit­ical signif­i­cance, whereby the EU was ready to assume greater respon­si­bility for it Eastern neighbours.

Moreover, if one looks back at the past twelve years, the EaPs people-to-people dimension, which engages broader society beyond the level of author­i­ties, and its financial assis­tance have a clear added value. The EaP Civil Society Forum, which is the largest umbrella organ­i­sa­tion for civil society from the EU and the region, including over 1000 SCOs, has expanded its work way beyond the regular General Assembly’s meetings and has become an important instru­ment of consol­i­dating the voice of civil society with respect to EU insti­tu­tions. Also, numerous indi­vid­uals and organ­i­sa­tions from the region benefited from different civil society, researchers, academia, youth and profes­sional exchange, mobility, and coop­er­a­tion instru­ments. A lot of success stories at the very down-to-earth level can be told after having examined the programs and their beneficiaries.

Financial assis­tance, which was first delivered through the European Neigh­bour­hood Instru­ment (ENP) and now through the global Neigh­bour­hood, Devel­op­ment and Inter­na­tional Coop­er­a­tion Instru­ment (NDICI) has also important added value. The EU was also quick with offering assis­tance in view of the COVID pandemics, which broke out in early 2020. The COVID-19 EaP vacci­na­tion package increased from an initial Eur30 million to Eur75 million in August this year. Also, the EU’s commit­ment to providing a Eur2.3 billion Economic and Invest­ment plan in grants could be an important contri­bu­tion to the economic growth of the EaP countries. The targets for 2025 spanning from support to SME, indi­vidual mobility oppor­tu­ni­ties to health resilience, and digital trans­for­ma­tion are very ambitious.

Ukraine’s concerns and priorities

Without under­ap­pre­ci­ating the impor­tance of various support mech­a­nisms and assis­tance, which the EU provides within the Eastern Part­ner­ship initia­tive, Ukraine’s key concerns and objec­tives seem to be better addressed through bilateral relations with the EU, through devel­oping multi­lat­eral formats, such as the Asso­ci­ated Trio and bilateral diplomacy towards indi­vidual EU member states with the aim of promoting political support within the EU for eventual Ukraine’s membership.

First, Ukraine is striving for deeper inte­gra­tion with the EU. The path between the current level of inte­gra­tion and the eventual EU member­ship is long and one can think of inter­me­diary steps towards the eventual goal. Even if the member­ship prospect is not on the table, the philos­ophy of the current framework of political asso­ci­a­tion and economic inte­gra­tion is in line with the idea of a multi-speed Europe, whereby the EaP partners are offered some elements of what the fully-fledged EU Member States enjoy.

One line of effort is about fully realising the potential of the AA and modernising the AA. When it comes to the first aspect, a consor­tium of Ukrainian think-tanks iden­ti­fied 15 areas, in which Ukraine has to implement certain commit­ments to pave the way for the EU decisions on deeper inte­gra­tion. An analysis of the state of play showed that only in two areas, related to certi­fi­ca­tion of agri­cul­tural goods and natural gas market, tangible progress has been achieved. So there is still a lot of poten­tials. As to moderni­sa­tion of the AA, in 2018 Ukraine and the EU started upgrading the Annexes of the AA In 2021 the compre­hen­sive overview under Art. 481 was launched. The idea is to accom­mo­date the evolving EU legis­la­tion and Ukraine’s desire for deeper integration.

The second line is about demanding new formats of inte­gra­tion beyond the current political and legal framework. For instance, while Ukraine has to implement the EU acquis, it is not included in the insti­tu­tions, where respec­tive discus­sions and decisions are taken. The option of at least taking part in the consul­ta­tions in certain policy areas might be an attrac­tive one. Also, accession to limited sectoral ‘unions’ might be an option explored by experts. Therefore, if the political will is there, inter­esting and attrac­tive solutions can be found.

Second, Ukraine is inter­ested in stronger support on the part of the EU for its sover­eignty and terri­to­rial integrity, which is addressing Ukraine’s security concerns. When the EaP was launched in 2009, no one could imagine that Russia would go as far as chal­lenging the European security order estab­lished after the Cold War ended and even redrawing the states’ borders in Europe with the use of force. Today this has become the reality, which the EU cannot ignore. Eastern Part­ner­ship offers no solutions to this problem, although, posi­tively, it envisages efforts to make partner states more resilient when it comes to hybrid security threats, such as disin­for­ma­tion and cyber-attacks. Beyond the EaP, there is a European Union Advisory Mission to Ukraine, dealing with the civilian security sector. However, there are discus­sions in the EU on a possible new military CSDP mission to Ukraine, initiated by Lithuania. Also, Ukraine declared its interest in coop­er­a­tion within the framework of the Permanent Struc­tured Coop­er­a­tion (PESCO), whereby projects with indi­vidual EU MSs can be imple­mented. On top of that, Ukraine has agree­ments with indi­vidual MSs on direct military assis­tance with Lithuania and Poland being most active in this respect.

Third, promoting rule of law and other important reforms is a key issue. Despite the lack of political will for important reforms and strong actors, who block reforms, the quest for these reforms is deeply entrenched in Ukraine. It is not only about civil society demanding reforms, but one can speak of reform-minded enclaves among public author­i­ties, including bureau­cracy, local self-gover­nance, academia, etc. It has been widely recog­nised that promoting rule of law is the key reform for the overall trans­for­ma­tion of the country and for attracting foreign invest­ments. Yet, the EU lacks clear guide­lines and a moni­toring system to foster rule of law reforms. Certain important reforms in fighting corrup­tion and judiciary reform were initiated due to condi­tion­ality, linked to visa liber­al­i­sa­tion or financial support. Yet, the leverage remains weak if guide­lines are too weak and no specific and credible incen­tives are linked to reform demands. The way to go, suggested by Ukraine’s civil society, would be using the EU Justice Dashboard method­ology and the EU Rule of Law report to measure the progress of judicial reform and the fight against corrup­tion. Yet, the question of specific incen­tives (like the one of visa-free travel) is still open.

New foreign policy priorities

Apart from bilateral relations with the EU, Ukraine has recently started exploring multi­lat­eral formats and direct diplomacy towards indi­vidual EU MSs. The most prominent initia­tive so far has been that of the Asso­ci­a­tion Trio. It was offi­cially launched in May 2021, when the Ministers of Foreign Affairs of Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine met in Kyiv and signed the Memo­randum of Under­standing. Looking for options of inte­gra­tion with the EU beyond the AA/​DCFTA and enhancing security coop­er­a­tion with the EU are among the key objec­tives of the initia­tive. The initia­tive received further devel­op­ment, as the heads of states of the three countries met in Batumi in July 2021, where they signed a joint Decla­ra­tion, which empha­sised the quest of the three countries for the EU member­ship perspec­tive. Impor­tantly, the European Council President Charles Michel was there and welcomed the Trio’s intention to “foster coor­di­na­tion” between each other and the EU. The Joint Statement following the EU-Ukraine Summit in October 2021 “took good note of the initia­tive of the three asso­ci­ated partners aiming at increased coor­di­na­tion between them and enhanced coop­er­a­tion between the three asso­ci­ated partners and the EU”. While the EU is still reluctant to embrace the initia­tive and, more impor­tantly, establish insti­tu­tion­alised formats of coop­er­a­tion, the idea of multi­lat­eral coop­er­a­tion with the purpose of European inte­gra­tion is not new. The Visegrad 4 format and the different formats of coop­er­a­tion among the three Baltic states estab­lished in the 1990s pursued exactly the idea of coor­di­nating efforts towards preparing for the EU’s member­ship. Therefore it would be important for three countries to go ahead with deepening coop­er­a­tion and for the EU to establish this addi­tional track without jeop­ar­dising the EaP as an umbrella.

Kyiv also activated its diplomacy vis-à-vis indi­vidual EU Member States with the purpose of consol­i­dating support within the EU for the prospect of EU member­ship. By now already six EU member states confirmed their support for Ukraine’s member­ship in the EU through bilateral decla­ra­tions: the three Baltic states, Poland, Slovakia, and most recently Croatia.

One can also add the Lublin Triangle , an initia­tive of Poland and Lithuania to promote European and Euro-Atlantic inte­gra­tion of Ukraine. The respec­tive decla­ra­tion on the level of the three foreign ministers was signed in July 2020. This initia­tive is very much in line with Ukraine’s recently revi­talised foreign policy objective of estab­lishing itself as a Central European state. From this perspec­tive, the stronger voice and activ­i­ties from Ukraine, when it comes to multi­lat­eral coop­er­a­tion in Central Europe, are expected in the near future.



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