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The Eastern Partnership at 10 What is there to celebrate?

In essence, the Eastern Partnership has diverted from its original path. Instead of transformation, it speaks of stabilisation and differentiation. One can argue that some of the states have made progress in the last ten years; but not because of the Eastern Partnership.

There should be no doubt about the good intentions and the vaulting, inspiring ambition of the European Union’s Eastern Partnership programme (EaP). At its heart, the Swedes and the Poles found a simple premise in their extension of the European Neighbourhood Policy: to encourage, through incentives, a trajectory towards European values for the states involved (this was in the days when European values were not quite as tarnished as they are now).

May 2, 2019 - James Nixey - Hot TopicsIssue 3-4 2019Magazine

Photo: European Commission (CC)

It was, perhaps, with a little ironic destiny that the first letter of each Eastern Partnership country in Russian – Беларусь (Belarus), Украина (Ukraine), Молдова (Moldova), Азербайджан (Azerbaijan), Грузия (Georgia), Армения (Armenia) – could be acronymised to spell out the word for paper – БУМАГА (bumaga) – an unfortunate inference that “on paper” was all the Eastern Partnership would ever amount to. Humour is based on cruelty, but also on underlying truths. That contrived and minor coincidence would not be funny if the EaP was a runaway success… if through the EaP’s provisions, any of these countries had truly entered the European fold. But they have not. Not yet at least.

Jumping through hoops

The EaP was only seen as anti-Russian by those who wished to see it that way – by Russia itself of course and by the vocal minority who see it as “interference in Russia’s backyard” or, at best, needlessly provocative. Either way, such views deprive the six countries of their foreign policy independence. It should never be forgotten that Russia was originally invited to join the Eastern Partnership as well. The EU is nothing if not inclusive (just look at its Parliamentary Assembly). But being “one among seven” and submitting to “humiliating” western norms and standards does not befit a Great Power.

None of this is to say that any of the EaP countries were particularly fond of the hoops they had to jump through either – for three main reasons: first, it would entail initial economic hardship (“if it isn’t hurting, it isn’t working…”). This is true for the population at large, but also for the corrupt elites who would, theoretically, have to conform to western business practices and no longer skim off the top. Second, that there was no goal at the end – no membership perspective – in other words, a high risk for no reward. The weaselly suggestion that the reforms would be “good for them anyway”, was too hard a sell, to say nothing of disingenuous. The third reason the EaP’s provisions were unloved was simply because many countries – not all – simply had no intention of moving closer to Europe in any real sense. Setbacks and mistakes are understandable. But the overall negative direction seen in Belarus and Azerbaijan – not entirely by coincidence the two countries of the EaP with the longest serving presidents – suggests that the EU was mistaken to offer EaP membership in the first place and subsequently it has been overly tolerant of their misdemeanours by allowing them to remain in a club of supposedly reforming nations.

The EU’s conditionality has been – and still is – too one-sided: carrots but no sticks. “More for more” is a fine policy, but woefully insufficient on its own. Consistent transgression of EU stipulations, norms and principles has not resulted in any form of punishment other than rhetorical admonishment. The simple conclusion must be that the Eastern Partnership (and thus the EU) has failed. It has failed to impose measures on transgressors, making the EU look weak. It has failed to attain any kind of wider recognition for what it is – in the EaP states less than five per cent of the population has even heard of it; while in the EU this number is even lower, less than one per cent.

Finally, of course, it has failed because it has not worked. You can argue that some EaP states have made progress in the last ten years. But you cannot argue it was because of the Eastern Partnership. In the cases of Armenia, Ukraine and Georgia, it was pressure from below, either through street protests or civil society, which has stimulated transformation.

Who’s to blame?

This is not to take away from the achievements of the “leading” EaP countries. Ukraine has just had a genuinely democratic election and looks to have overturned an incumbent. Georgia has already done so. Both have made marked progress in reform (and both have a long way yet to go – but at least they have started). Armenia, despite having been forced into Russian-contrived groupings and at times effectively having sold out, has recently managed to claw back some of its lost independence through a popularly-elected and independent-minded, if pragmatic, leader. Moldova had a strong start, though it has since lost its way. Belarus and Azerbaijan remain laggards by their own volition.

You cannot prove a negative. So who is to say that had the EU put more enthusiasm and financial resources into the EaP, more could have been achieved. However, a lessening of sanctions on Belarus in 2017 and a special agreement being negotiated with Azerbaijan in 2018 has not resulted in an improvement in their democratic accountability. And the very fact that the EU has given over 200 times more financial assistance to Greece than it has even to Ukraine suggests that the EU is more interested in looking after its own than helping neighbours. This may not be unreasonable, depending on your proclivities and priorities, but it is indicative.

For the sake of fairness, when assessing the achievements and failures of the EaP it is reasonable to invoke a mirror image of the common argument against the existence of a benevolent God (why should “He” take credit for the good, but not the blame for the bad?). In other words, if the EaP cannot be credited with the achievements of Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia and at one time, Moldova, then why should it take the blame for the failure of Azerbaijan and Belarus? And Moldova. The answer is that it should not. The conclusion, then, is not that the EaP has failed the countries; rather that it has failed to make an impact.

In essence, the EaP has diverted from its original path. Instead of transformation, it speaks of stabilisation and differentiation – fancy words, redolent with concern and tolerance. True, there has been some positive work done through the Association and Free Trade Agreements, as well as integrated border management and training, and even in communications and PR skills. But most other initiatives such as infrastructure investment are still in the planning stage. In sum it adds up to inertia and a lack of ambition – and the EU’s withdrawal of its responsibility as a foreign policy actor, not least through lack of popular buy-in. Obviously those member states which have “failed” – Belarus and Azerbaijan primarily – are largely responsible. But the EU has never been fully behind the EaP – with the possible exceptions of its founders – Poland and Sweden – and the Baltic states.

All this “failure” then and Russia has barely lifted a finger to directly damage the EaP – at least not beyond obtuse criticism and a disinformation campaign, the latter of which could easily have been countered with proper planning. The more interesting question is, what would Russia have done had the EU “put its back into it” a bit more? The theory that Russia is threatened by the success of the former Soviet states has been emphatically proven only in the Baltic states – and that was some time ago, before Russia’s more visceral revanchism of late. But it is still a pretty good theory. One has to ask why the EU is not prepared to test it more. And the answer to that is surely money (there is not enough of it for a Marshall plan for the former Soviet states), political will (lacking in the traditionally leading countries of Europe – the UK, Germany and France) and disinclination (Italy, Hungary, Slovakia among others, don’t believe in it anyway).

Ultimate prize

If the EU is honest, there is little reason for it to celebrate on this 10th anniversary of its magnificently envisioned Eastern Partnership project (though there will doubtless be much laudation). However, there is an opportunity here. The EU should use the occasion to double down. And to focus. Expel for a consistent record of bad behaviour and no attempt to reform (a further warning is reasonable), and reward success, not just with cash (though more of that is needed which Brexit, if it happens, will hardly help with), but with the ultimate prize – a membership perspective. After all, what are the arguments against it? That the EaP states are nowhere near ready? Fine, then no admittance. That the EU cannot cope with so many other distractions? (Brexit again, migration, populism, keeping existing members in line). Surely a successful candidate would help with these problems not hinder them.

And again there is Russia. It, too, needs to be tested. If a third party is really going to prevent an independent country from joining a club which it itself is not a part of, then this needs exposure for what it is – the claim to a sphere of influence and a denial of states’ independence. This is widely believed to be true – Georgia 2008 and Ukraine 2014 stand as evidence. Yet, and I write this as a known Russia “sceptic” (“hawk” in others’ language) – more evidence of Russia’s true intentions and what it is prepared to do would be helpful for policy-makers. Besides, the more the Kremlin interferes in these countries, the more they will be inclined to conform to EaP standards to counter it. But in choosing between values and interests, the EU often chooses unwisely. As such, fear of the Russian response has entered into the EU calculus.

None of this should be confused as the “geopoliticisation of the EaP”, much less wrenching countries away from Russia’s grasp. For a start, Russia should not be grasping. But more importantly, it is a question of free will. Besides, if the EU really wanted to take over the EaP countries it would simply offer them membership, not the purgatory they are in now. The EaP is geopolitical only to the extent that Russia perceives it as such.

The creation of the EU’s Eastern Partnership was a bold move. Yet its 10-year lifespan has been a timid one. If the EU continues this project in the same lacklustre way it has run it over the past few years then it will be throwing good money after bad. Worse than that, it risks these countries forever being seen as “post-Soviet” (or worse, Russian playthings) – condemned to a “betwixt and between” existence, with commensurate antipathy towards the West at the political and popular levels.

But fortune favours the bold. With buy-in at the highest levels and a concentration of more resources on fewer countries, the Eastern Partnership will have a lot more to show for on its 20th birthday than it has for its tenth.

James Nixey is the head of the Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London.

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