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Eastern Partnership. Partial progress

In May 2009, the European Union launched its Eastern Partnership. It was a product of Swedish-Polish partnership, spearheaded by the two foreign ministers Carl Bildt and Radosław Sikorski. After one decade, the verdict is mixed. The EU offered a framework for co-operation, free trade agreements, visa-free travel and reform programmes, but the financial support has been quite limited, giving the reform programmes too little clout and no clear perspective of EU membership has been offered.

May 2, 2019 - Anders Åslund - AnalysisIssue 3-4 2019Magazine

Photo: Public Domain / VOA (CC) commons.wikimedia.org

When the Eastern Partnership was launched, it was a big positive step. As a highly bureaucratic organisation, the EU can do little without a legal framework. In 2003 the EU presented the idea of European Neighbourhood, but it involved too many countries and the EU commitment was limited, leaving everybody disappointed.

The Eastern Partnership was much more ambitious. It aimed at the conclusion of Association Agreements, which included Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreements (DCFTA) and visa-free travel agreements. The partnership countries were also supposed to receive some financial support and technical assistance. The Association Agreements were designed to be reform programmes, formed with much of the EU acquis communautaire. Initially, the EU targeted six countries, the six European former Soviet republics – Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. However, the EU stands for democracy and freedom, and neither Belarus nor Azerbaijan complied with its democratic conditions, so they have fallen out from the actual co-operation. The choice of countries has made perfect sense and the EU has been a force for judicial and democratic reform in these countries.

Russia excluded itself in 2003 when it refused to be a part of the EU neighbourhood project, demanding a standing of its own. Until Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014, the EU had two summits a year with Russia, which made little sense. Since 2014, on the contrary, it has been subject to various sanctions caused by its aggression against Ukraine. Until June 2013, the Kremlin seemed indifferent to the EU and its Eastern Partnership, while it had strongly opposed NATO enlargement. In the summer of 2013, Russia’s policy changed swiftly and radically. It became a major foe of the conclusion of Association Agreements with the EU, driving its Customs Union and Eurasian Economic Union as an alternative. On September 3rd 2013 President Vladimir Putin convinced Armenia’s President Serzh Sargsyan to abandon the already negotiated Association Agreement and instead join the Eurasian Economic Union. That left three countries opting for Association Agreements with the EU.

Next, Moscow put great pressure on Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovych to stay out and imposed some trade sanctions on Ukraine. Yanukovych went to the EU Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius in November 2013 with the intention to sign an Association Agreement, but he was not allowed to do so because he refused to fulfil two key EU conditions: free the jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko and adopt a law on prosecution. The Ukrainian population revolted. While the formal reason was that Yanukovych failed to conclude the Association Agreement, the real cause was that this agreement was seen as a dividing line between authoritarian kleptocracy and freedom. The Ukrainians cherished the EU as their greatest hope to gain freedom and combat corruption. The outcome was the EuroMaidan or the Revolution of Dignity as it became called and the ouster of Yanukovych.

Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova have all signed their Association Agreements in Brussels in June 2014. While the ratification process lasted two years, the agreements were in force from September 2014. The DCFTAs have led to the EU share in these countries’ exports having increased substantially to 43 per cent for Ukraine in 2018 and 60 per cent for Moldova. Increased trade with the EU has also led to improved quality of production. Western Ukraine and Moldova seem to be catching on to the European supply chain.

Moldova succeeded in getting visa-free travel with the EU as early as 2014, while Ukraine and Georgia had to wait until 2017. The visa freedom is very popular, but it is a double-edged sword because it has greatly stimulated emigration to the EU countries, primarily for temporary work, but also for permanent work and studies. The consequence has been a substantial shortage of skilled labour primarily in Moldova and Ukraine, which hampers their economic development.

The EU machinery works slowly but systematically and all three countries have carried out numerous economic and legal reforms, gradually improving legislation and administration. The financing of these reforms, however, has been quite limited, and a frequent complaint is the absence of any clear membership perspective. This makes it more difficult for domestic reforms to have vital reforms accepted.

The critical concern is reforms of the judiciary and law enforcement. The only country that has been truly successful was Georgia under President Mikheil Saakashvili, but his reforms were far more radical than the EU desired. Rather than learning from the success of Georgia, the EU appears to be learning from the failures in Ukraine and Moldova, where both the West and local reformers now call for more radical reforms. The substantial top-level corruption in Ukraine and Moldova that the EU seems unable to combat can easily grow into a potent anti-western sentiment. Nor has the EU managed to do anything for the national security of these countries, which is beyond the EU mandate, but it is a sine qua non for the sovereignty of these countries.

The overall verdict is that the Eastern Partnership has been helpful for Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova, but a much more forceful EU engagement is desirable.

Anders Åslund is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and the author of the forthcoming book Russia’s Crony Capitalism: The Path from Market Economy to Kleptocracy.

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