Threats and weaknesses of the Eastern partnership: towards a more pragmatic approach

When coming to the Eastern Partnership, the very first and not simple question that we have to ask is, what is it? As a very basic answer we could say that is the overall framework guiding relations between the EU and its six eastern partners (ArmeniaAzerbaijanBelarusGeorgiaMoldova and Ukraine), but this is surely not enough. It does not define the nature of the partnership, is it an agreement that include an “European perspective” for that countries, and in this sense aiming to prepare the eastern partners for joining in the future the European Union, or is it a pure external policy towards neighboring countries, an alternative to membership? The uncertainty on its nature is not solved by looking at the definition given by the European Union, on this particular aspect is possible to notice that different institutions give different definitions.

According to the European Commission: “The Eastern partnership (EaP) is a joint policy initiative which aims to deepen and strengthen relations between the European Union (EU), its Member States and its six Eastern neighbors”

For the European Union External Action the partnership is instead: “joint initiative involving the EU, its Member States and six Eastern European Partners (…) It is a specific dimension of the European Neighborhood Policy”.  Finally, the European Councildefines it as follows: “aiming to reinforce the political association and economic integration of six Eastern European and South Caucasus partner countries (…) Through the ENP, the EU works with its southern and eastern neighbors to achieve the closest possible political association and the greatest possible degree of economic integration.”

The partnership was launched in Prague in 2009 with the main goal to create a stable, prosperous and secure Eastern neighborhood. The EU offered a lighter formula of political association and economic integration under the Association Agreements involving a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area. Only three states are nowadays this way associated (Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia), Armenia signed a Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement last week in Brussels, while negotiations are still on going with Azerbaijan and Belarus. Negotiations are in this case complicated by the state of democracy and human rights in the country, both crucial elements when dealing with negotiation with the EU.

The EU try to stabilize the region towards the Eastern partnership has been facing several threats and highlighted a series of weak points. An European choice in these countries, combined with the possibility of a future membership in the NATO alliance have provoked the rising of internal conflicts and a counter aggressive reaction from Russia, escalated until the military occupation of Crimea.

The ambiguity of Brussels in its negotiations with Ukraine and the uncertainty about the nature of the partnership has surely played a role in the conflict escalation. Furthermore, it is necessary to consider the differences between the six countries, which are definitely important. The six partner countries share a common Soviet past and continuing endemic problem, such as widespread corruption, the opaque links between politics and business, and an inefficient bureaucracy. Despite this, they are not a homogeneous group. There are profound differences among them, already visible in 2009 and still present nowadays, on regards of Democratic system, Belarus and Azerbaijan results to be slightly autocratic with no intention for a substantial change, but also at the social level. The existence of a critical mass in society against authoritarianism and in favour of democratic changes, especially visible in Ukraine, but also present in Georgia and Republic of Moldova, has been the decisive factor for political change in those three countries. The existence of such differences complicated the situation, since bilateral agreements are necessary inside the partnership, weakening the chances for a multilateral approach. Moreover, countries need different amount of time to implement the expected reforms. This has open the field to new concepts as multispeed partnership, in which not only different times but different goals as well are settle down for the different countries. A context like this could be a danger for a comprehensive partnership.

Tangible results for citizens were the very core elements of the strategy and a commitment reaffirmed by President Juncker during last week summit when he said that: “The Eastern Partnership is first and foremost a partnership of people. It is about improving lives in all of our countries, about bringing our societies closer together.” Despite certain successes in transposing the EaP political and normative framework into national agendas, in particular of the Associated countries by means of AA/DCFTAs and visa liberalization, actual results of transformation as perceived by society within these countries, are not yet in evidence. There is a growing perception that AA/DCFTAs are delivering less than expected. The associated countries embarked on a vast reform process that is similar to the countries from central Europe despite having less resources, in fact, they can’t access to EU structural funds for modernization.

On the light of all these threats and with a general consensus on the need to upgrade the initiative in order to make it more functional, the fifth Eastern partnership summit took place last November 24th in Brussels in the absence of Alexander Lukashenko, “the last dictator in Europe” was for the first time invited to join the summit but declined the invitation.

The summit outcome has been a list of twenty deliverables to be achieved by 2020. These areas include public administration, trade and economic development, gender equality, mobility, energy issues, the environment and climate change. They also underlined the important role of civil society implementing reforms and developing resilient societies. Common challenges facing both EU Members States and partner countries such as disinformation and cyber issues were also discussed. One last remark should be focus on the budgetary aspect, between 2014 and 2017 the partnership was financed for 2.8 billion from the EU budget. The last summit confirmed the intention of the EU to invest in the countries, particularly for developing SMEs and the civil society in general, but a new approach was underlined aiming to rethink how money is spent in the EaP, to find a better balance between budgetary and project-based support. The EU intends to follow a smart conditionality approach. No reforms, no disbursement. An alternative idea advanced by the Eastern partners and the EU parliament to set a special investment fund for Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova was welcome instead with skepticism from the Eu commissioner Hahn, who commented: “It’s always nice to have new ideas, but we already have a general investment plan in the EU, which can also be used by companies who do business with Ukraine, for example.”

The last summit underlined a general pragmatic commitment from the EU towards the Eastern partnership, based less on high declaration and more to more concrete and feasible goals to be achieved in the medium term. Despite the expectations of the most committed eastern partners, the perspective of future memberships remains out of the table.

By  Flavio Previtali