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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