The “Eastern Partnership Plus” is the EU’s failure
The concept of the “Eastern Partnership Plus” seems like an attempt at masking the fact that the entire Eastern Partnership programme has not achieved its goals because it could not do so. The problem of the Eastern Partnership is that its goals are in fact impossible to achieve without eventually granting its members the prospect of EU membership.
On November 15th the European Parliament adopted a resolution announcing the creation of the Eastern Partnership Plus. Although the concept gives the impression that it could revive the initiative, it may also have effects quite opposite to those expected.
According to the resolution, the Eastern Partnership Plus project is aimed at countries that have achieved significant results in implementing the reforms expected by Brussels. The document lists a number of benefits offered to members of the new initiative. The most important ones include the prospect of joining the customs, digital and energy union as well as the Schengen zone. The resolution emphasises once again that the scope and level of cooperation with the EU depends on the ambitions of both sides as well as on the pace and quality of reforms.
In other words, some countries are doing well within the Eastern Partnership programme primarily because they are in conflict with Russia and cannot turn to it, and some countries for various reasons are not as much involved in the reform process. Therefore, the aim of the Partnership Plus is to select the top of the class and move them a notch higher, leaving the original Eastern Partnership to become an initiative for cooperation with countries not interested in cooperation with the EU.
All of Europe happily adopted the resolution of the European Parliament, probably because it is a typical product of the European bureaucratic machine. It is a resolution in which the Parliament calls on the representatives of the member states to undertake actions that are aimed at starting work on an initiative aimed at boosting the dynamics, etc. In practice, the resolution does not add or create anything new, so there still is a long way to go before the Eastern Partnership Plus actually comes into existence. This likely explains why the resolution was accepted.
Eastern Partnership Minus
The concept of the EaP + seems like an attempt at masking the fact that the entire Eastern Partnership programme has not achieved its goals because it could not do so. The problem of the Eastern Partnership is that its goals are in fact impossible to achieve without eventually granting its members the prospect of EU membership. If we take the simplest description of what the Partnership is – a foreign policy aimed at bringing the partner countries closer to the European Union, then consequently at some point this closeness must occur. And this, in turn, is something the European Union cannot, or perhaps does not want to, do.
The EU ambassador in Kyiv, Hugh Mingarelli said that none of the partner countries were to be expected to join the European Union in the near future. This is why Brussels is preparing a prosthesis to serve in lieu of membership. It will include inviting Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova into the customs union, unifying call rates, and even introducing these countries into Schengen, while at the same time reinforcing their status as the peripheries of Europe.
Against this background we should underline the strategic sense of our Russian partners, who made sure to install internal conflicts in every one of the countries that positively stood out in the Eastern Partnership initiative. Transnistria, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, the Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics, not to mention Crimea, constitute not only a chance for Russia to control Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova, but also a guarantee that the path to EU membership will be more difficult for all three countries. Therefore, the aim of the Eastern Partnership Plus is to make the bitter truth that there is no place for them in the European Union a little more palatable. In five years’ time, we can follow up with the Eastern Partnership Extra, and in a decade – launch the Eastern Partnership Elite, but this will still not change the fact that we continue to talk about the European Neighborhood Policy and about partners instead of family members.
A missed opportunity
The lack of membership prospects also results from the fact that all three of the above-mentioned countries missed the window of opportunity to break away from the post-Soviet space. This window opened during the period of Russia’s traumatic weakness in the 1990s, which occurred alongside the economic and political successes of the European Communities at that time. Poland joined NATO and the European Union after many years of hard work to meet the Copenhagen criteria, however, from the beginning, it knew that this would be possible. In the 1990s, when the first decisions about the Western world’s shift to the east were being made, Russia was experiencing problems with stabilising its own territory and no one listened to its protests.
The situation is very different today. It is difficult to imagine Ukraine’s accession as the 29th member of the European Union at a time when the EU is shaken by various crises and every major Western state already has representatives of Eurosceptic parties in its parliament. This is due to the simple fact that Ukraine would then have to become a beneficiary of EU funds and French and Polish farmers would be forced to share a significant part of their funding with the newcomers. After all, Ukraine is a state with a well-developed agriculture and an estimated 42 million inhabitants. This would immediately translate into a rise in the importance of Ukraine, which would be able to become one of the EU’s key players, while at the same time being one of its poorest countries. Politically, as well as economically, there is currently no such possibility, and this will not change anytime soon.
Thus Ukraine, the current top of the class in the integration process, buries Georgia and Moldova’s chances of becoming EU members. It would be difficult to explain to Kyiv that, unfortunately, Ukraine is too big to enter the European Union. That is why further initiatives supporting integration will be created, their ultimate aim is to achieve the goal of creating cordon sanitaire separating Russia from the European Union. For this is what the EaP+ countries will become once integrated, and not unified, with the EU.
Real help or just peace of conscience?
The Eastern Partnership is soon about to become a two-speed project. The EU still acts according to the same mechanism: if you do not want to integrate, we move forward. Without any successful states, the Eastern Partnership will become a hollow initiative and in a year’s time, even the greatest optimists will admit that the programme does not make any sense. The Eastern Partnership Plus will, in turn, encounter the same fate as its predecessor. Someone in Kyiv, Tbilisi or Chisinau will finally get tired of waiting outside in the hall and then Russia – provided it can afford it – will roll out the red carpet before them.
The European Union must choose whether it wants the Eastern Partnership to be a geopolitical initiative or just a fan club of countries with European aspirations. If it decides on the former, it will challenge Russia in a similar way as at the very beginning when the programme was first created. In such case, the EU should ensure that the Partnership’s offer is attractive. The focus should be on guaranteeing benefits to Eastern countries, meaning not only abolishing visas or opening student exchanges but also offering access to actual resources, i.e. infrastructure funds, financial support for SMEs and support for critical sectors such as agriculture or energy.
Along with the money, the EU would have to send “soft power divisions” which would offer Ukrainians, Armenians or Belarusians a competitive offer to that of Russia. This way we can not only encourage Belarus and other countries to consider integration with the EU in terms of benefits but also guarantee the EaP countries like Ukraine what they really care about: raising the standards of living of their citizens. It may then turn out that joining the European Union itself is no longer necessary because the goal of living in a “European” state has already been achieved.
However, choosing this path means heating up the conflict with Russia, which in turn requires making sure that we will be able to compete in our sphere of influence. If we consider that until this day the European Union has not managed to force the reintegration of Cyprus or the return of Crimea to Ukraine, it points to the fact that Brussels will always be impotent when faced with military power. Restructuring the Eastern Partnership from the cordon sanitaire programme that it is today would also require the political will to do so and setting the EU’s Eastern policy as a priority.
This probably should not be expected given that Italy and France prefer to focus on developing cooperation with Africa, especially that Africa is currently not burdened with a counterpart of Russia that would impede European influence in this region. Unfortunately, everything seems to indicate that even if the EaP + continues to develop, it will not allow the partnership countries to come too close.
Translated by Aleksandra Małecka
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.
Bartek Tesławski is deputy editor in chief of Eastbook.eu