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Taking stock of the Eastern Partnership and perspectives for renewing the EU agenda in the East

A renewed Eastern Policy for the European Union should be bold with clear expectations on how to move forward. It needs to have clear aims that are reachable, flexible and also motivating.

July 1, 2019 - Adam Reichardt - Articles and Commentary

The 5th Eastern Partnership Summit in Brussels in 2017. Photo: Rebecca Harms (cc) European Union flickr.com

The ten years of the Eastern Partnership is certainly an opportunity to celebrate. Think about how much has been achieved, which is directly or indirectly a result of the Eastern Partnership. Many are familiar with what I am referring: the association agreement; the deep and comprehensive free trade agreements; the visa-free regime; the technical assistance for reforms; the growing connectivity in areas like infrastructure and telecommunications; economic activities; stronger social and education ties; civil society engagement; and stronger political interactions between the six Eastern partners and the European Union. All of this is thanks, at least in part, to the Eastern Partnership.

Of course, we also have to recognise what is probably the most significant development in the region – the EuroMaidan revolution – or the Revolution of Dignity – which started as a small protest against the decision to abandon Ukraine’s European path and later became much, much larger – and arguably more than just about Ukraine’s integration with Europe. Nevertheless, the spark which lit this protest was related also to the Eastern Partnership. And since the ousting of Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine has – together with Moldova and Georgia – signed association agreements with the EU; joined the free trade area and their citizens can now travel to the EU visa-free.

Hence, looking back over these past ten years, we can certainly say, “yes, Europe has done a lot”. Eastern Europeans have seen some positive changes and these changes are thanks to Europe’s engagement.

Yet, at the same time, it raises the question – is Europe doing enough? And how much of these developments are thanks directly to the Eastern Partnership? And what negative consequences has the policy had on the region as well? Or maybe it would be more accurate to ask – What negative consequences has the region experienced as a result of Europe’s lack of engagement?

Georgia and Moldova, for example, still have unresolved, frozen conflicts on their territories. There has been little progress in finding any sort of solution to these conflicts – mostly because Russia is a side in these conflicts and does not want to see these countries which it deems in its sphere of influence to become successful democracies. Moreover, Moldova in general has gone from being one of the more leading countries to almost a complete reversal – and here I am referring largely to the elites and the political developments – which has seen consolidation of oligarchic control. We are watching closely the developments which are emerging there. Nevertheless, The EU has become almost helpless in advancing the association and integration agenda and there is a risk of freezing Moldova between the EU and Russia.

Ukraine, as I mentioned already, has had a rollercoaster of a ride through the last ten years. But what is worrisome is not only the war in Donbas, or the illegal annexation of Crimea – which are huge problems – but also the fact that Ukraine is now Europe’s poorest country. The economic component of the association and free trade agreements clearly have not delivered for Ukraine.

We also have the issue of mass migration from this region – mostly for economic reasons. We can look at the Polish city of Wroclaw, where the number of Ukrainians has reached 10 per cent of the population – according to official statistics. Other countries like Moldova or Armenia have also experienced massive emigration – where young people feel very pessimistic about any futures in their homeland.

Then there are the three states which are not associated with the European Union – Armenia, Azerbaijan and Belarus. Armenia is an interesting case because it signed a special agreement – a water-downed version of the association agreement – with the EU. But moreover, was last year’s Velvet Revolution – a completely unexpected fall of the corrupt elite and a replacement with Nikol Pashinyan and hopes for a new path for the country. What is more – is that most commentators agree that the Velvet Revolution in Armenia had very little to do with the EU and the Eastern Partnership. Change was driven largely by domestic issues and not by any desire towards greater Europeanisation.

Another challenge is the fact that two members of the Eastern Partnership are members of the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union – Belarus and Armenia. No one has really asked what that means for the bigger picture of the Eastern Partnership. Clearly, this issue needs to be addressed when thinking about a renewed Eastern policy.

Azerbaijan, in turn, has declared it has no intention of integrating with Europe and prefers a pragmatic, strategic co-operation, while Belarus is largely connected to Russia; though it has given signals that it wants to open up a little more to the West; but nothing along the lines of the other states.

Finally, we need to mention relations with Russia. The outbreak of the war in Ukraine as a response to the ousting of Yanukovych has sent shockwaves throughout EU capitals. There is a sense in many EU states that the EU should not be so active in the region, because of a fear of Russian response – which in essence implies a recognition of the region as part of Russia’s sphere of influence. This is a very dangerous approach. And it was always stated from the beginning that the Eastern Partnership is not an anti-Russian project; but this is how the Kremlin interprets it, which has expressed a willingness to use military force to stop countries’ desire to be more integrated with the EU.

There is no doubt that the real threat for the Kremlin is a democratic, free post-Soviet space. At the same time, we need to also understand that the real threat to the EU and the values it stands for is the export of corruption, disinformation, a system of captured states and instability in this region.

Looking towards the next ten years

This brief summation of the last ten years of the Eastern Partnership illustrates that the results have been mixed. We also need to recognise that Europe and the EU is not the same as it was 10 years ago. Hence, there is no better time than now to rethink our policy towards the East and take advantage of the upcoming 2020 as an opportunity for updating or even recreating a new Eastern Policy for Europe.

The year 2020 will also be a time to assess the 20 deliverables for 2020 – which in itself were a good step for the Eastern Partnership as a whole. But at the same time, we need more than just ticking off the boxes; and we should recognise that some of the deliverables are either very difficult to achieve or challenging to assess, especially when we consider the diversity of the members of the Eastern Partnership.

We also have to admit that there is a challenge of Eastern Europe fatigue in Europe and in Brussels. So one of the main barriers for creating a more enhanced Eastern policy for the EU will be overcoming this fatigue and finding a way to keep the region on the top of the agenda.

Hence, when thinking about moving forward and Europe’s policy for the next decade in Eastern Europe, several issues come to my mind.

First and foremost, we should consider the brand. I am not just referring to the name “Eastern Partnership” (which is something we should consider) but also the overall awareness of what the Eastern Partnership. How can it be better communicated to not only the Eastern partners but also to Europeans themselves? James Nixey from Chatham House in New Eastern Europe, cites research that around five per cent of people in Eastern Partnership states have heard of the project. What is worse, in the EU, less than one per cent of Europeans have ever heard of the Eastern Partnership! That means, all of the money, assistance, support, etc. that is being provided to countries and societies in Eastern Europe – less than one per cent of EU citizens are even aware of the framework for which these actions take place.

Connected to that are the aims and objectives of the policy. In fact, I believe this is one of the biggest problems of the Eastern Partnership from the last 10 years; the stated aim of the European Union’s Eastern Partnership has been in part to “build a common area of shared democracy, prosperity, stability and increased cooperation”.

It is difficult to imagine that this project is anywhere closer to these aims than they were ten years ago – stability being the main issue here. And we can add that the region is not much more prosperous than it was ten years ago (see Ukraine above), not to mention democracy in some countries.

A renewed Eastern Policy for the European Union should be bold with clear expectations on how to move forward. It needs to have clear aims that are reachable, flexible and also motivating. It needs to recognise the differentiation in the members and perhaps maybe even have separate aims for different types of members. It would be too challenging to put the same aims towards Belarus and Azerbaijan as we would Georgia or Ukraine, for example.

This also forces us to reconsider the multi-lateral co-operation and whether it would make more sense for the associated states to have a separate level of co-operation than the non-associated states. The idea of greater institutionalisation proposed recently by the Polish foreign minister should also be considered; but again it would need to take into account the divergence of the six states; and would it make sense to have an EaP institution with a rotating presidency, as the proposal suggests, considering the diverse interests of the six states.

We also need to recognise that the largest motivating factor for integrating with Europe is the attractiveness of being a member of the European Union. It is a mistake to declare that membership in the EU is not up for discussion. It should be on the table; and it should be clearly stated. What is more, a renewed policy should also have mechanisms in place to punish backsliding. The Eastern Partnership in its current form has been not very effective at punishing backsliding or lack of implementation of integration.

We should also not consider association as a replacement for integration, as Balázs Jarábik argues in New Eastern Europe. We need to make sure that association is not considered the end point but rather a step – a major step – in the integration process. We also need to ensure real progress on the side of the association states that the implementation of the association agreement is headed in the proper direction. This requires, as I mentioned earlier, a more assertive approach on the elites to ensure that they are implementing the association process properly. And be vocal when they are not, so that societies who are expecting integration with the EU understand where the fault is when there is backsliding.

Where to focus next

After this assessment, I would like to briefly offer some concrete ideas on areas where the Eastern Partnership can focus on going forward.

First and foremost, I believe that a larger focus should be placed on youth exchanges, civil society co-operation and education programmes. The idea to establish an Eastern Partnership University, based off the model of the College of Europe, has been around for a long time. But only recently were certain programmes launched in this direction. And we still lack an institutional set up which tries to reach the aim of educating a new generation of Europeans from these countries.

Greater investment into people-to-people contacts is also needed. This means not just bringing students or young professionals from the Eastern Partnership countries to the EU, but also bringing Europeans to the Eastern Partnership. In this way, we can get more Europeans involved in their policy in this region.

I would suggest greatly expanding the European Solidarity Corps to have a strong Eastern Partnership component. It is a project which has great potential – much like the US Peace Corps – but still is largely unknown among young people in many EU countries.

In terms of civil society support – this is an area that the Eastern Partnership has always focussed on and the Civil Society Forum has done some good work – but we also need to seriously assess the effectiveness of these programme as well as their outcomes. How much has changed as a result? A true assessment of the mechanisms for funding civil society groups is also needed at the same time removing the bureaucracy from civil society support and not creating dependencies. Clearly there is very little local funding for NGOs; so we need to find innovative ways to support social entrepreneurs to avoid funding dependencies and help the civil society flourish.

The EU also needs to invest more in independent media in the region. This is a serious issue when we think about the level of disinformation and propaganda that reaches the audiences in the Eastern Partnership countries (mostly coming from Russia). This means that the EU should not only strongly support independent media but also help develop educational programmes for media consumers and focus on areas like media literacy and civil education.

Obviously, these are very broad areas and addressing them will take a lot of effort on all sides – including not just the EU and the European capitals, but also from the members themselves. Yet there is no better time than now to consider a new strategy based on the experience that we already have accumulated over the last ten years.

I am hopeful that this next term of the European Parliament and the new EU commission – as well as Germany’s presidency of the council of the European Union in 2020 – can become the opportunity for creating a renewed and redeveloped policy towards Europe’s East.

This essay is based off the remarks given as a key note speech during the international seminar titled “The Future of the Eastern Partnership” held June 11-12 in Wrocław, Poland.

Adam Reichardt is the editor in chief of New Eastern Europe.

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