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Our European Neighbours

The following are excerpts from the op-eds written by Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt and Polish Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski exclusively for New Eastern Europe Issue 4(IX)/2013.

November 28, 2013 - Carl Bildt - Articles and Commentary



The full texts are available in the issue: www.neweasterneurope.eu/current.

The Eastern Partnership – Towards a Reunited Europe

By Carl Bildt, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Sweden

My vision is clear. I want Europe to be a continent without dividing lines, where people, ideas, trade and investment can move freely, across increasingly irrelevant borders. This would make Europe and its people more prosperous, innovative and secure.

The Eastern Partnership (EaP) was launched in Prague in May 2009 after an initial proposal by Sweden and Poland. The idea and promise was to start a process of ever closer relations between the EU and our Eastern European neighbours: Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine and Belarus. Together, we have established that the EaP is based on a community of values, including democracy and human rights, and that it should accelerate the political association and economic integration of the Eastern European countries with the EU. We have also agreed that the partnership has a particular role to support those who seek an ever closer relationship with the Union. Furthermore, several of the partner countries have unambiguously stated that they even seek a clear perspective of future membership in the EU, and the EU has welcomed their European choice.

Over the years, this vision has been repeatedly challenged. Inside the EU, there is strong backing for the EaP, but we sometimes differ in our level of ambition. In the partner countries, public support for coming closer to the EU is strong, but vested interests often block or slow down necessary reforms. We also face a growing outside pressure directed against closer cooperation between the EU and the countries of Eastern Europe. The Russian Federation currently seems intent to use all instruments at its disposal in a brutal attempt to sway our partners from their European path. This campaign is based on a zero-sum logic, quite alien to the win-win approach of both the EU and the Eastern partnership. Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Areas are fully compatible with Free Trade Agreements with other countries, and the EU welcomes the development of better trade relations among CIS countries; membership of a Customs Union, however, is a different matter. In the EU, we will continue to be very clear that it is the sovereign right of every country to choose its own path and that undue pressure is unacceptable.

On many fronts and despite the challenges, the EaP has delivered more than we could have credibly expected during its first few years of existence. Cooperation is increasingly intense in a large number of projects, platforms, panels and seminars – both bilateral and involving some or all of the partner countries. Civil society representatives are strongly involved in dialogue and in critical monitoring of the performance of both the EU and the partners. This engagement of our wider societies is an essential asset of the partnership. Additionally, the Eastern Partnership has put this region, its prospects and conflicts much higher on the internal EU agenda, in stiff competition with all other matters and regions requiring the EU’s attention and engagement.

At the same time, it is clear that much remains to be achieved. We are only at the beginning of this journey. For the promises of the Eastern partnership to fully materialise, both the EU and the partner countries must leave our respective comfort zones. The EU must be ready to more fully embrace these European states and their citizens, and enhance our political, practical and financial support along the way. At the same time, the partner countries must realise that the EU is not only a club for trade and big politics. It is a civilisational choice – in favour of competitive politics and fully democratic elections, the rule of law, the protection of minorities and a vibrant, and sometimes cheeky, civil society. This to mention but a few of the fundamental building blocks of the European model.

Across the region, we need to see a much clearer commitment and more effective actions to strengthen respect for the common European values that we have all agreed to uphold. Real European integration requires much more than nice words and reforms that never leave the paper. And naturally, the criteria become stricter, the closer a partner country wishes to integrate with the EU.

The conclusion of Association Agreements with several of the partners will be an epochal step in our relations, but the potential of the agreements will be unlocked only in the process of implementation. The same is true in the on-going Visa Dialogues, where gradual steps are taken towards visa-free travel, in exchange for the adoption and implementation of far-reaching reforms in the partner countries, creating a well-managed and secure environment. 

All these reforms require political courage, from the Eastern European partners and the EU alike, to keep an eye on the larger picture and to implement reforms also when the political or other costs seem to outweigh at least short-term benefits. Reforms are not always immediately popular with entrenched interest groups and the population at large.

Sweden is committed to staying strongly engaged, inside the Union and through bilateral support to the EU integration of Eastern Europe. The new Swedish strategy will follow the cooperation Sweden is involved in with several of the EaP partners for a long time – in some cases since the early 1990’s. The overall focus is on human rights, good governance, gender equality, civil society, the protection of the environment and the development of market economies. Sweden has also recently appointed a special Ambassador for the EaP, with the task to further enhance our contribution to the partnership in the EU and in relation to the partners. 

It is my deep conviction that we have all to gain from ever deeper relations in Europe and that, in a perhaps longer perspective, the door to the EU must remain open for any European country that wishes to join and that fulfil all criteria.

Spurring on the European Project

By: Radosław Sikorski, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Poland

Poland’s activities on the international stage are driven by the goal of building a strong, stable and secure Europe. We must jointly pursue this objective by deepening integration across the continent, with a view to building lasting prosperity in Europe as a whole. The Eastern Partnership – founded as a Polish-Swedish initiative and operating under the aegis of the European Union – is tasked with doing just that.

The EaP is an ambitious endeavour. In fact, some EU member states needed much convincing to step up to the plate. We also continue to meet new challenges on the part of our Eastern partners. This is understandable, since the EaP covers a broad swath of countries with varying backgrounds. But some issues are common to all of them: from their tough beginnings after the fall of the Soviet Union, through problems stemming from fragile government, socio-economic ills and unresolved conflicts, all the way to deficits of democracy and weak civil societies. The EaP helps resolve these problems.

Among the EaP’s biggest achievements is its key role in the painstaking negotiations on Association Agreements and their Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area components. It has also led to progress in the visa liberalisation process, thanks to which Moldova and Georgia are getting ready to go ahead with visa-free travel to the whole EU area.

Thanks to the Partnership, the most ambitious partners have opted for the European development model as their clear-cut transformation goal. Needless to say, the belt-tightening necessitated by the economic crisis also affects our Eastern neighbourhood. But, paradoxically, it is yet another argument in favour of the EaP. Since deeper integration equals greater growth, it in turn boosts Europe’s prosperity – not just in the East.

As such, I count on the further development of the multilateral cooperation system, also via the Flagship Initiatives. The Integrated Border Management has already seen 1,000 officers trained, far exceeding the EaP Roadmap target of 700. The strength of the Small and Medium Enterprises flagship initiative is reflected in the progress made by partner countries in the World Bank’s latest Doing Business report: Georgia came 9th, improving in 6 out of the 11 priority areas over the course of just one year

But economic issues are just one side of the story – the other is democratic transformation. The path so far has been bumpy but consistent, allowing us to achieve much more than in the Southern Neighbourhood. The situation in Tunisia, Libya or Egypt leaves little room for optimism: these countries are experiencing a serious crisis of statehood, coupled with socio-economic instability. And that’s where the difference lies: contrary to the Southern Neighbourhood countries, the Eastern partners are not just neighbours of Europe – they are our European neighbours.

Back in the early 1990s, as the Soviet Union was collapsing, the West made a promise to the East. Twenty years on, it’s high time we delivered on that promise. In this respect, the EU offers a perfect combination: Western European states set the highest standards in good governance, while Poland and the Visegrad Group countries can show others how to actually pave the way to a free-market democracy. Indeed, one of our most precious exports is the technology of transition. Thanks to the steady harmonisation of laws and the promotion of European values, EU-EaP civilisational bonds are growing ever stronger.

But the Partnership is not a fix-all. It demands constant effort on both sides. We are playing our part: in 2010-2013, the EaP was allocated 1.9 billion euros for bilateral and regional cooperation. In order to boost support for the most committed partners and discourage backtracking, we have established the “more for more” mechanism as one of the cornerstones of the new European Neighbourhood Instrument. Within this framework, the Eastern Partnership Integration and Cooperation (EaPIC) programme adds another 130 million euros for democracy building and economic reforms.

The Eastern Partnership is already well on its way to eliminating the artificial East-West divide that has plagued Europe for generations. Since 1989, Poland has interchangeably been classified as Eastern Europe, Central Europe, and now some – praising our prudent economic stance – even see us as a member of the Northern European group of countries.

The future of our continent lies in advancing the European integration project. Poland will continue to advocate bringing Eastern Partnership countries closer to the EU – and keeping the door to the Union open.

Poland’s EU integration in 2004 was a game-changer for the country. We knew we had plenty of catching up to do, but by aligning our laws with the acquis communautaire, we managed to reap enormous economic and socio-political benefits: our cumulative GDP growth in 2004-2012 amounted to 46.3 per cent, compared with 10.9 per cent for the EU. If a Westerner had conjured up these numbers in 1989, on the eve of Poland’s systemic transformation, his “forecast” would surely have been dismissed as ridiculous. Today, instead of jeering at such statistics, we want to hold them up for our Eastern friends to see.

We’ve been there before. Now it’s your turn.

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