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The Eastern Partnership and the various EU crises

For the EU, the year 2017 is the year of not only overlapping crises and challenges, but also new mutually intertwined lessons and opportunities. The main challenges for the EU before the 2017 Brussels Summit include the lack of room for ENP’s politicisation, balancing between security, stability and foundational values and the geopolitical rivalry with Russia in the region.

November 15, 2017 - Maryna Rabinovych - Analysis

Image by European External Action Service

In 2017, exactly 60 years after the signing of the Rome Treaties, the European Union is facing growing uncertainties. While optimists argue that the community has survived many crises (such as the “oil shocks” of the 1990s, the failure of the constitution for Europe in 2005 or the Eurozone crisis), and there is nothing to worry about, others remain cautious. Populists’ successes in the parliamentary elections in France, Germany and Austria, rule of law crises in Eastern Europe and the rising separatist movements have all been parts of the overlapping crises.

These processes reflect the member states’ divergent visions of the balance between the EU’s foundational values, on the one hand, and security and stability, on the other – a direct result of the migration crisis.

A shaky balance between security and values, as well as nationalism and integration, inevitably influences the EU’s external policies, such as its policy vis-à-vis Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia. In the anticipation of the Eastern Partnership Summit on November 24th it is worth to discuss the challenges arising from the EU’s overlapping internal crises, and look into the opportunities to tackle them.

Beyond the Association Agreement

From its very beginning in 2004, the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) has been criticised for insignificant incentives it offered to partner countries, in particular the non-inclusion of a long-term membership perspective. As explained by Andrew Wilson, the ENP was initially based on the assumption that “the Brussels model was attractive and would spread”, however, there was little understanding of how the policy should develop and what it should lead to.

Given the fact that Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia have already reached their ENP objectives (political association, free trade and visa-free travel), the upcoming summit will have to address the new goals, directions and incentives of the policy. Ukraine announced that it will strive for the Customs Union with the EU immediately after the Association Agreement’s full entrance into force on the September 1st 2017, seeking to compensate for the high costs of its European choice. Importantly, official aspirations to join the EU also sustain in Moldova and Georgia.

At the same time, the internal divide between the EU member states makes it hard for the Union to come up with any ground-breaking commitments in terms of the ENP. In other words, when the value-based political cooperation between the EU member states is being continuously undermined, it is hard to imagine any radical change in the relations between the EU and the ENP. The major resulting issues include the ever decreasing transformative power of the Eastern dimension of the ENP and Eastern Partnership and the Union’s dropping legitimacy and  leverage in the region.

Security vs stability

The 2015 ENP review put a strong emphasis on stabilising the neighbourhood and security cooperation, which included a security sector reform, tackling terrorism and radicalisation, crisis management and response etc. Subsequently, just like in the case of the EU’s policies in the southern neighbouhood (e.g., Tunisia, Egypt), the EU may prefer to develop the relations with existing elites for the sake of stability, rather than to promote democracy.

As argued by Hrant Kostayan, the EU’s willingness to maintain stability in Moldova and promote it as a success story of the Eastern Partnership resulted in tolerating corruption among the elite. The EU thus became “a handmaiden to the diminishing support for Moldova’s European integration”. Similarly, despite the initial support for the creation a separate anti-corruption court in Ukraine, the EU did not back the opposition’s demands for the “big political reform”, which would include electoral law reform, the abolition of MPs’ immunity and the creation of a separate anti-corruption court.

The EU’s strive for stability and the resulting deficiencies in its political communication bear the threat of promoting cosmetic reforms for the sake of sustaining donor aid. Professionalisation of domestic civil societies, as well as the EU’s acceptance of the status-quo and pouring flaws of aid into the support for non-transformative reforms represents a crucial avenue towards leveling the legitimacy of the EU’s external value promotion under the ENP.

Russia and geopolitics

Since the launch of the ENP, the geopolitical rivalry with Russia over the neighbourhood represents a crucial obstacle to the policy’s evolution. Russia’s application of hybrid warfare in Ukraine represents a crucial security threat for the European Union, especially the Baltic and Nordic states. Thus, despite the EU’s continuous efforts to contribute to conflict resolution in Transnistira (Moldova), Abkhasia and South Ossetia (Georgia) and Eastern Ukraine, Russia’s involvement there levels the Union’s efforts.

Frozen conflicts represent both a crucial issue to be tackled within the ENP’s security dimension and, simultaneously, the tool Russia can use to affect the EU’s policy in the region. While the unpredictability of Russia’s reaction to the further politicisation of the ENP is a threat per se, Russia’s active support for European populist forces and different visions regarding the future of the EU-Russia relations should not be underestimated.

Since the issue of the EU’s sanctions against Russia is a crucial one in the triangular relationship between the EU, Russia and Ukraine, the results of each 2016-2017 domestic parliamentary elections in the EU were covered in Ukrainian media in terms of the winners’ positions vis-à-vis Russia. The growing support for lifting sanctions and re-launching relations with Russia – expressed by Italy, Greece, Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Hungary and Cyprus – evidently represents a challenge for both the sustainability of the ENP and the legitimacy of the EU in Ukraine and beyond.

The geopolitical competition against Russia represents both the major aggravating factor for the ENP and a crucial stimulus for the policy’s evolution and adaptation. The question is whether the above states will be able to consolidate their positions vis-à-vis sanctions despite the opposition of Germany, Poland, and the Baltic and Nordic states.

Crises and opportunities

The ongoing rule of law crises in Poland and Hungary invoked a debate within the EU, aimed at critically reflecting on the EU’s experiences of value-promotion in Central and Eastern Europe. As a result, the Union identified the consensual rule of law benchmarks and multiple ideas for monitoring the adherence to values both within the Union and externally.

However, the most important takeaway from the debate has been the need for clarity when it comes to what sort of values the EU should promote and what it seeks to achieve. The trend towards a more precise definition of cooperation goals is manifested in the Eastern Partnership’s 20 Deliverables for 2020 and will also be extended to the EU’s bilateral cooperation with its neighbours. It will include the promotion of political dialogue and values to increase the EU’s external legitimacy.

Communication represents a crucial pillar of successful cooperation too. On the one hand, the EU has to strengthen the sense of partnership, equality and unity among the neighbours, for example through setting common goals and avoiding tough debates on their European aspirations. On the other hand, it should remain a watchdog of transformation, intolerable to corruption and cosmetic reforms. Making its values truly shared and legitimising the conditions it sets is a hard task. It will require a multifaceted political communication and increase in the Union’s legitimacy in Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia.

Since functional sectoral cooperation in the areas of economic development, energy efficiency and climate change gives room for demonstrating the benefits of the cooperation with the EU to a broad audience, it should be seen as a crucial opportunity to legitimise the EU and its conditionality policy in the neighbourhood.

Diversifying the target groups of the EU programmes to include the rural population, mid-career professionals and children requires a special attention. Moreover, due to the inevitably converging laws and practices, functional sectoral cooperation contributes to the promotion of foundational values, such as democracy and the rule of law – the task, highly relevant for Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova.

Functional sectoral cooperation will help to fill the vacuum resulting from the lack of breakthrough in political cooperation, as it will legitimise the Union and promote its values. Sectoral cooperation is mutually beneficial for the EU and its neighbours – it translates into enhanced stability for the former and contributes to solving of the pressing economic, institutions and infrastructure-related issues for the latter.

Peacekeeping and diplomacy

Security and stability represent the crucial targets the EU seeks to achieve in the neighbourhood, given the Russian presence in the region. For the EU it is thus crucial to develop new strategies to engage in peacekeeping in the region, especially in the diplomatic domain. For example, stronger political support for the Minsk process, engaging France and Germany, would be a good way to back these countries’ efforts.

Moreover, since balancing stability and foundational values is important for preserving the essence of the ENP, the EU should develop a flexible, but practically applicable strategy to link stabilisation to foundational values in the areas such as the justice system and fair elections. Strategically, they would strengthen the EU’s leverage in the region vis-à-vis Russia and promote the desired transformation.

For the EU, the year 2017 is the year of not only overlapping crises and challenges, but also new mutually intertwined lessons and opportunities. The main challenges for the EU before the 2017 Brussels Summit include the lack of room for ENP’s politicisation, balancing between security, stability and foundational values and the geopolitical rivalry with Russia in the region.

At the same time, clear values and messages, elaborate political communication, functional cooperation, peacekeepinkg and renowned linkage between stabilisation and values would mean a strengthened leverage, legitimacy and trust for the Union in its Eastern neighbourhood.         

Maryna Rabinovych, LL.M (Hamburg) is a 3-year PhD Candidate at the I.I.Mechnikov Odessa National University, specializing in the EU external relations law. She is also a Reintegrated Expert to Ukraine in terms of the GIZ Programme “Migration for Development” and a Global Community Manager at the Ukraine Democracy Initiative (Sydney, Australia).

The publication of this text was co-financed with a grant by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland within the framework of Public Diplomacy 2017 – II component Eastern dimension of Polish foreign policy 2017 and in partnership with Eastbook.eu. The publication expresses the views of the author only and should not be identified with the official position of the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

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