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Sweden welcomes a more proactive position from Eastern Partnership countries

Interview with Anna Westerholm, Ambassador for the Eastern Partnership at the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs. Interviewer: Kateryna Pryshchepa.

November 18, 2019 - Anna Westerholm Kateryna Pryshchepa - Interviews

Anna Westerholm, Ambassador for the Eastern Partnership at the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Photo: Warsaw Security Forum

KATERYNA PRYSHCHEPA: At present we clearly have two distinct groups of countries within the Eastern Partnership. Those who have signed an association agreement and those, who for different reasons, have not and probably will not sign. Is the Eastern Partnership viable, given that its participant countries clearly have different strategic goals?

ANNA WESTERHOLM: First, I would like to challenge your notion that we have two distinct groups in the Eastern Partnership. We certainly have one distinct group, which is made up of the countries that signed the association agreements and free trade agreements with the EU. But I don’t think it’s fair to put Azerbaijan, Armenia and Belarus in a distinct separate group. It’s rather that we have three countries with different levels of engagement with the EU, and then we have one group of three countries with similar levels of engagement with the EU. So, in this respect, there are four “groups”. But I don’t see this as a constraint to the Eastern Partnership (EaP), considering that the EaP has two pillars. One pillar is bilateral relationships, which we can develop uniquely based on the ambitions of the respective countries. The other one is the multilateral umbrella where we hope to be expanding and adding new areas and sectors in the future. These two pillars are complementing and balancing each other, and gives the EaP the possibility be both inclusive and offer differentiation at the same time.

But it seems that countries in the Eastern Partnership have different strategic goals.

Do you mean from a geopolitical perspective?

In particular.

It is important to remember that the Eastern Partnership is not a geopolitical project, though I know that there are those who want to claim that it is. Neither is it a security “tool”. Every country has the right to make its own foreign and security policy choices. This is fundamental. And there is no contradiction in that countries apply EU norms and values, and implement EU standards, and orient themselves towards EU when it comes to market access and trade.

Look at my country, Sweden. We are members of the EU, we are members of Schengen, but we are not members of the Eurozone and we are not members of the NATO alliance. And it is not a contradiction. So, I think we should view the plethora of different options within the Eastern Partnership and outside, like NATO, not as mutually exclusive but as a set of components which you can chose for your country.

But then what would be the big goal for the Eastern Partnership over the next 10 years? There has to be a clearly set direction for this sort of cooperation to work.

This is what we are actually working on now within the framework of the ongoing EU consultation process. I wouldn’t like to prejudge its outcomes since it is an ongoing process. In Sweden we are looking at our own contribution. But there are two dimensions here: one is an overarching political vision of which you are asking, but there is also concrete focus on reforms and sectors where we need to intensify our cooperation. So, with that view in mind, I think the goal is to add more and deepen more specific areas of cooperation that we can offer. And hopefully that is what the partner countries will ask for.

When do you think these consultations will finalise in the form of a policy change?

The closing day for submissions is the 31st of October. We in the EU will probably receive an internal indication in January-February 2020, I expect. And then it will be shared and discussed with the partner countries.

With regards to the associated countries, at least my country would like to see that we are able to further develop cooperation within the association agreements. And for those who do not wish that, we will work within the multilateral framework. Let’s keep in mind that the end goal of the Eastern Partnership is not EU membership. It never was – and it can’t be since not every country wants an EU membership. So, for me part of the political vision for the Eastern Partnership right now would be to assure the long term strategic engagement of the European Union towards Eastern neighbours – that show that we have a clear commitment on the part of the European Union, and that we are in it for a long time.

So, from the point of view of Sweden, the goal is to ensure that the EU is present in that region in some form?

Not only that. That sounds very small. On the contrary, we want it to be a major engagement on the part of the European Union – both institutions and the Member States. And Sweden will remain heavily engaged in the region, as we are, bilaterally and through the EaP – and IFIs and multilateral organisations present in the region.

And of course, the other political vision that we hope for is that the other Member States and EaP partner countries will remain engaged, and that partners move forward on their bilateral reform agendas; and in doing so prepare themselves for what their end goal may be – be it EU membership or not. I do not pretend that in the nearest future we can arrive at that juncture where EU membership can be realised. First of all, transition takes time, and it is not a linear process. And we, as the EU, are evolving and changing as well, and we also have to be ready for that possible next step. So, for the next decade of the Eastern Partnership I hope that we will be able to develop this joint undertaking and keep it flexible enough to meet new challenges and opportunities.

It would seem that everyone is trying now to find the content to define what the EaP should be.

Talking about content is easier. But the political vision is more difficult since partner countries differ in their ambitions. As for content, we should continue to build on what we are already doing. I would foresee that we deepen and develop sectoral cooperation, and increase focus on youth, climate and the environment, but also on infrastructure and digital – to give but a few examples. The coming period will be dedicated to formulating new priorities and targets.

But what would be the future benchmarks for the EaP or associated countries? Signing the Association Agreements for Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine was a tangible achievement to which one can point. What would be the next goal?

First, signing an association agreement is a benchmark in a way, it is not an end goal. It is the starting point of a very long and difficult process. So, along the line towards the end goal – whatever that end goal will be for different countries – is implementing these agreements (AA/DCFTA, CEPA etc). So, I would say that we need to set ourselves sub-goals within the agreement, to meet targets within these agreements. We now have visa liberalisation with three countries – that’s fantastic. But implementing an association agreement is a very difficult undertaking which entails profound changes within a country. Just look at what a fully implemented DCFTA would mean.

And then we could see, as it is being discussed now, whether there are parts within the association agreement which should be modified or need to be developed or amended in order to expand. But adding a new huge package like the existing Association Agreements to the existing ones is not the goal. We simply don’t have any such thing. But even if we did, it wouldn’t have been fair because the countries should first meet the criteria set by the Association Agreements.

If you look at the text of the existing Association Agreements, you will see that they are more comprehensive than the agreements offered to some of the Western Balkan countries. This means that we are in fact already asking more, or we have jointly agreed on doing even more with these countries on our part, with, frankly speaking, less support. And that is why I think we should be focusing on making sure that partner countries are capable of implementing their agreements.

Based on the previous experience of EaP results for Ukraine, and probably Moldova and Georgia, one might say that unless there are some clear mid-term goals or prospectives to reach, nothing is going to happen.

And why is that?

Could it be not only about the incentives on the side of the EU, but also about moving in small steps of setting achievable goals to know what you are working for?

The small achievable goals are easily found within the Association Agreements, but I think we should also discuss this within the next multilateral Eastern Partnership package, beyond 2020. I think we will be looking next year for some new deal for the multilateral format, which would build on the 20 deliverables for 2020 and increase focus on, for instance, climate related issues and youth. What we would want to see in the new offer for the multilateral format is to something that in terms of concept and priorities draws the EaP closer to what we – the EU – set for ourselves. Again, making sure that, even if we work and change at parallel paths right now, partner countries change, and also adapt to the changes that we are undergoing in the EU. So, priorities that we set for ourselves, such as addressing climate change, we will also offer to the EaP countries. Europe is one region.

Do you think that the associated countries within the EaP would be able to integrate with the EU’s digital market that is under development now?

I hope so. That is one of the areas that we can look into. Another area could be roaming arrangements. So, we can find these small midterm goals within the existing frameworks. I think that we would rather throw the ball to the partner countries governments and say: “Now, when we have the Association Agreement, you develop and communicate to your population your intermediary goals within this framework and then meet them with our support.” If the Association Agreement and DCFTA were to be utilised to the full, it would transform the societies so much that it would speak for itself.

At the end of the day, we engage in EaP to build a more prosperous Europe, a better Europe for people to live in. Therefore, we must emphasise more that we must look for what works for people and what people need. And here I think we should be a bit self-critical. Because at the beginning, when we were formulating reforms, we looked primarily at the macro level and at structural changes. Don’t get me wrong, these are necessary, but we didn’t put enough direct focus on what are really concrete to people’s lives, so they feel that they are on board. So, more focus on regional and local level would be needed, more focus on people’s daily lives, more focus on young people – not just things that they need, such as education and jobs and so on, but also utilising their engagement. More focus on equality between men and women so that they can equally take part in the transformation and development of their countries. Climate, as I said, should be an important priority in the EaP, as it is a top priority for the EU. And more on the digital agenda should be included among the new priorities.

Because there is also another thing when we are talking about the three countries which signed the Association Agreements – those countries have different capacities to take on and implement goals.

We also should not be forgetting about Armenia. Armenia has not signed the free trade agreement, but they have a very ambitious partnership agreement. They have a new leadership which has set itself a very ambitious agenda when it comes to change, values and democracy – and this must also be recognised.

But do you think it is feasible for them to be active in the EaP while at the same time being a member of the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union?

I don’t see a contradiction there. What they clearly cannot do is to have a free trade agreement with the EU, but to democratise and to have a stronger rule of law society and to work on the digital agenda…

But Armenia, as indeed most of the EaP countries, has – mostly uninvited – Russian troops on the ground on their territory. So, the question of security factors in the region remains.

We are discussing those issues, acknowledging the importance of security matters but also knowing that the Eastern Partnership is not a policy for security cooperation, we do not have a hard security toolbox. Rather, we need to look at security in the broader prospective. To unpack what we mean by security apart from the traditional defence discussion – security is also a peaceful, stable and just society. Part of building your own security is to build a functioning rule of law society. What we have to do is to assess vulnerabilities and then address those we can, through the toolbox available via the Eastern Partnership. The other vulnerabilities Eastern Partnership countries will have to address through toolboxes available via other partnerships or organisations, such as the OSCE. To strengthen one’s security is also to build one’s own resilience in the broader sense. When we assess what makes societies secure, you find functioning judiciary, functioning institutions, independent media that provide to citizens what is reasonably to be expected. This is part of the social contract and builds trust in a society. Public trust is the first important factor. Unless you have public trust in the governments and reforms you are implementing, you will end up with societies more susceptible to manipulations; this is one part of security.

Another part of security is to have equal distribution of reform benefits, so you don’t create pockets of poverty and do not feed polarisation in society, which also can become a security threat. Corruption is also a huge threat to national security. And more and more, countries are beginning to understand that corruption is not simply a theft but also a vehicle for influence. So, treating corruption as a threat to national security can be seen as part of the EaP “security toolbox”. And then of course, we participation in CSDP missions. But I don’t see the EaP moving in the direction of conflict resolution. That is not our mandate.

Do you think Russia will play a role in how the Eastern Partnership is shaped in the future?

Obviously, everything that happens in Europe is affected by what is happening around it. So indirectly, it may. But we do not design EaP policy to accommodate Russia. And let me stress this, the EaP is not a partnership directed against anyone other country; it is a partnership for the countries that take part.

I have a speculative question, which is related to the question of benchmarks or future goals. In order to foster stronger cooperation – also among the three associated countries – do you think it will be possible to establish some international agreement or body modelled after EFTA, for instance, where the EaP countries and the EU will all be members?

I am very glad when I am talking to Ukrainian or Georgian or Moldovan colleagues and they tell me that they are trying to establish something together – because I think that is how it has to start. Any initiative to do something like this would have to come from the partner countries. It has to come as a request developed as a viable idea, which we can assess.

When it comes to EFTA, for instance – when a country thinks that it is ready to apply to join EFTA, then do it.

Also, one of the things that could be done is to look into the list of all the programs and projects that the EU has that are open to non-members. I know Georgia is already making an assessment of what would be applicable to them and what they are ready for. So that homework has to be done by the partner countries. Make the assessment and then bring forward credible suggestions, that we can assess. From the Swedish point of view, we welcome deeper integration – and on the membership perspective our position is known, I don’t need to repeat it. Every step that a partner country does proactively, we will assess positively.

This interview was recorded during the Warsaw Security Forum, where Anna Westerholm was one of the speakers on the Future of the Eastern Partnership.

Anna Westerholm Ambassador for the Eastern Partnership at the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs.

Kateryna Pryshchepa is a PhD candidate at the Institute of Political Studies (Polish Academy of Sciences) and a project officer at the College of Europe Natolin Campus.

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