Persisting towards a Europe without dividing lines
Has the Eastern Partnership been a success story for the European Union? The question, a decade after its official launch, is certainly worth asking.
Let us start where we were more than a decade ago and which led the two of us in our then capacities as foreign ministers of our respective countries to make the first proposal for an Eastern Partnership in May 2008. At that time, the European Union had developed various neighbourhood policies in different directions. There was the overall European Neighbourhood Policy since 2004 – which led France to drive plans for an ambitious Union of the Mediterranean – and there was an ambitious approach for co-operation with Russia taking place.
Yet in the middle of all of this, there seemed to be little time or energy for answering the requests for closer co-operation coming from the countries immediately between the EU and Russia (Belarus, Ukraine and Moldova), which also included the three countries in the South Caucasus (Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia).
In short, this was a part of Europe that Brussels had, to some extent, been neglecting, not always by design, but rather by default since all the other neighbourhood schemes had been launched, requiring attention and resources. That is why we suggested launching the Eastern Partnership – to fill a void in the overall neighbourhood policies of the EU and also recognising how important developments in the region were going to be for Europe in the years to come.
Winds of change
The reaction to this idea was met with initial scepticism. Some had argued that we had already too many neighbourhood policies – so why add another one? Others feared this would sound like a promise of membership perspective to those countries which are far from ready. A few were afraid it was going to divert resources away from the support for the Mediterranean neighbourhood countries. And there were valid questions as to the extent which of the six post-Soviet countries could be united as some sort of entity under the guise of an Eastern Partnership.
However, when the war broke out between Georgia and Russia, and Russia sought to dismember Georgia by recognising South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states in August 2008, the wind changed. Under the then French Presidency, the plan for an Eastern Partnership was quickly approved, paving the way for its launch with the summit in Prague under the Czech Presidency in May 2009.
A little over five years ago, both of us writing in the pages of this magazine – in the run up to the important Vilnius Summit of the Eastern Partnership in November 2013 – stressed that the Eastern Partnership should be seen as part of a policy for “a continent without dividing lines”. That was certainly how we saw it then. But in the summer of 2013 the Kremlin had altered its policy. It had previously ignored the Eastern Partnership, viewing it as fairly irrelevant – although in our dialogues they had been uncomfortable with the phrase “common neighbourhood”, indicating that it was primarily theirs. But once the benefits were becoming visible and attractive, the Kremlin altered its policy – launching its own Eurasian Union, also based on a customs union. This shift indicated that Putin was prepared to do whatever it took to bring the member states of the Eastern Partnership back into Russia’s fold.
The Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement that was negotiated with Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia and Armenia was in no way incompatible with the existing free trade agreements coming out of the agreements with the old Commonwealth of Independent States. Mexico has free trade agreements with both the United States and EU, so why should there be any reason Ukraine (or the others) could not? And with the opening of trade relations we had no intention to build new barriers in Europe. In fact, there was still a vision of free trade between Lisbon and Vladivostok.
For Moscow, however, the issue was not about trade. It was about Putin’s geopolitical ambition, and the alternative he launched needed a strong western component – Kazakhstan was not enough and neither was Belarus. From the EU’s point of view, it was up to the individual states to decide for themselves. When the president of Armenia, after an unexpected night session in the Kremlin, declared his country was not going to sign the DCFTA with the EU but instead line up with the Russian-directed union, this was just noted and accepted in Brussels. The right of every nation to freely choose its own course was a core part of our idea.
But it was primarily against Ukraine that the Kremlin directed its guns. The story of the rapidly escalating Russian efforts – fierce trade sanctions, hybrid warfare and political destabilisation to direct military aggression – was nothing but dramatic. It began with heavy trade penalties in the late summer 2013 and came to a climax with regular tank battles on the plains of Eastern Ukraine a year later. Nothing of the sort had been seen in Europe for decades.
Clearly, the refusal of the Kremlin to accept the choice another nation had taken was the reason for its retaliatory actions. And it was truly a national choice. During one of our joint visits to Kyiv, we were reminded of the fact that it was a choice supported by all the presidents and prime ministers of Ukraine since the country acquired its independence. Five years after the Russian aggression, the most remarkable fact is that the Eastern Partnership is still existing and that not only have three DCFTA agreements been ratified and started to work, but that the “core group” of the EaP has also showed enough reform maturity to get visa freedom. The efforts to derail and destroy it have clearly failed.
This year there will be numerous events to highlight everything that has been achieved. Economic and trade links have been substantially strengthened, with the EU now being the number one trade partner for all EaP member states, with the exception of Belarus. And people-to-people links have been strengthened. No less than 30,000 students from the Eastern Partnership countries have been able to benefit from the Erasmus+ programme. This builds links for the future. But everyone knows that the road ahead is long.
Ukraine avoided political, financial and military collapse in 2014, and it has made very important progress since then, but its economy has yet to recover. It has benefited from receiving the largest EU support package ever given to a country outside of the union, but the main driver of the future has to be the reforms it decided to undergo. The presidential and parliamentary elections this year will be crucial for the continuation of Ukraine’s reform path.
In the meantime, the Eurasian Economic Union does not seem to be doing so well. In Astana and Minsk it is seen as geared too heavily towards the interests of Moscow. And tensions in a number of areas have been building regarding the relations between Russia and Belarus. A recent study found signs of Russia starting to lose interest in the Eurasian Union project altogether. In both Yerevan and Minsk there is a renewed interest in co-operation with the EU and the Eastern Partnership. But as we move forward with the Eastern Partnership and the 20 deliverables for the co-operation that was agreed in 2017, we should not forget our original vision of a Europe without dividing lines.
The brutal dividing line in eastern Donbas has cost 13,000 people their lives, and millions have been forced to flee their homes. What was once an industrial heartland of the Soviet Union has been reduced to a criminalised Russian-run rusting ruin. And in spite of massive infusion of money, Crimea, with its fascinating and multifaceted history, is a shadow of what it could have been. These issues need to be resolved. It is about the principles underlying the security of every European nation. It must be much more prominent on the agenda of Brussels – not only Berlin and Paris – in the years to come. Once that is done we should revive our vision, and seek to extend all the ambitions we have for the Eastern Partnership; and also to a Russia that, sooner or later, must return to a path of European modernisation if it wishes to be not relegated to a junior partner of China.
Today, the Eastern Partnership is an integral and important part of the policies and programmes of the EU. Despite some challenges beyond what no one envisaged when it was first launched, it is making significant progress in helping the member states meet their European and reform aspirations. The Eastern Partnership has proven to be an idea which time has vindicated. And we firmly believe its best time is yet to come.
Carl Bildt (Sweden) and Radosław Sikorski (Poland) are former ministers of foreign affairs who, together, are credited for shaping and launching the Eastern Partnership policy of the European Union in 2009.