Eastern Europe intrigue
The Eastern Partnership started as a rather innocuous Swedish-Polish initiative. Launched in 2009, it was seen mostly as just another scheme for Brussels to channel funds and coordinate the European Union’s activities in Europe’s east. Ten years on, everything has changed about Europe’s East and the EU itself. Now everything is political. If previously the EU could claim that the EaP was just a technical process, it is difficult to sell this argument now.
And so the EaP is looking for direction, its role, purpose and what it can offer. Each EaP summit is an occasion to take stock and reflect. Are we doing too much? Too little? Is it enough to keep partners on board, to keep countries motivated? What is the end goal of all this? EU membership? Yes? No? For whom, yes? For whom, no? How would Russia react? The EaP is overthinking. No wonder that we have Eastern Partnership fatigue. Overthinking is exhausting.
Yet, when it comes to Eastern Europe, we should be intrigued, not fatigued. This is a region which is very diverse, fascinating and with great energy. EaP countries are often put in one basket as “post-Soviet” states. This label is of little use and only conjures up bleak images. Other than being post-Soviet, Moldova and Azerbaijan have very little in common. They are drastically different countries that we know little about. More conspicuously, Ukraine or Armenia recently went through stunning revolutions, and yet they too remain largely unknown to Western Europeans.
The EU urgently needs a better communication strategy for Europe’s East in order to garner more enthusiasm for the region among EU member states. For better or worse, Brussels is not the place where enthusiasm grows on trees. It is a place for painstaking compromises and procedures. Accordingly, the EaP is a very detailed, technical process. This is how the EU works and it should keep this systematic approach, setting clear goals, benchmarks and milestones and working on them one by one. This is how the EU has achieved great results in the past, not least helping transformations in post-communist countries.
However, the EU should also go beyond this framework and unpack the EaP structure by building it up with a stronger bilateral component and focusing more on EaP countries as individual partners. The key to this is getting more EU capitals on board and interested in the the initiative, and getting them to drive the processes. The Swedish-Polish tandem is no more, and Sweden needs other EU member states to engage in the process. Foreign policy is made in European capitals, they are more agile than Brussels, so this is where we need to see more enthusiasm about Europe’s East. Unfortunately, busy with a multitude of crises over the last decade, EU capitals have not fully grasped the meaning and potential of the revolution in Ukraine or the more recent one in Armenia.
The 2014 Revolution of Dignity started as the EuroMaidan, where the Ukrainian students manifested their commitment to European values and European future. There was great pro-European energy, which had long been missing within the EU itself. Emotions have since subsided, but Ukraine is still a source of great enthusiasm for European values and for the EU as a project. As Europe struggles to keep its own citizens interested and convinced of the value of the EU, engaging with Ukraine and understanding Ukraine better could help EU countries regain confidence in the remarkable project that is the EU.
The 2018 revolution in Armenia was of an entirely different kind and arguably did not even have a foreign policy angle. What happened, however, is very impressive. Within a month protesters managed to oust their despised leader. The protests were a definition of peaceful revolution and achieved a bloodless change of power that very few had imagined possible. The country is eager to change its path, modernise, and become a meritocratic democracy with strong institutions that respect the rule of law.
Ukraine and Armenia are examples of changes that were made possible by the power of ideas and values that the EU stands for – whether expressed explicitly or not. These are fascinating and impressive changes that could and should inspire the EU countries as well. In other words, the EU and its member states have a lot to learn from its Eastern partners. And a lot to gain. Beyond helping reinvigorate the European project, Eastern Europe can also help Europe adapt its policy on Russia, find new solutions to this and other challenges.
In getting more interested in Eastern Partnership countries and seeing them more as partners, the EU and its member states should not be afraid to acknowledge their own weaknesses. There is no point in pretending that the EU is the same strong actor as it was ten years ago. Moreover, it is better to be honest about EU’s capacities and ambitions – overpromising will not work in the long term. However, despite the crises that have troubled the EU and its member states, we can still be confident and proud of what we have achieved over the decades.
We often hear that the EU must help itself first and fix its problems before helping others, which is a fair argument. However, the point is that Eastern European countries can be part of our solution. They should not be framed as a ballast that can only tire us out or a problem to manage. Rather, they can be inspiring partners. Engaging more with Eastern neighbours, who look at the EU and its member states for inspiration, can help us understand better what we do, why we do it, and reinvigorate the European project itself.
Joanna Hosa is the programme manager of the Wider Europe programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations.