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The Eastern Partnership should now focus on greater integration

A conversation with Petras Auštrevičius, member of the European Parliament from Lithuania. Interviewer: Adam Reichardt.

March 16, 2020 - Adam Reichardt Petras Auštrevičius - Interviews

Petras Austrevicius in the European Parliament in Strasbourg. Source: Private

ADAM REICHARDT: I would like to start with your assessment of the European Union’s Eastern Partnership programme. Last year, we celebrated ten years of the Eastern Partnership. What do you think should be happening in the next ten years? Specifically, how do you see the development of the Eastern Partnership as a project in the next decade?

PETRAS AUSTREVICIUS: I personally consider the Eastern Partnership initiative one of the most successful in the European Union’s history. It is part of the EU’s success story: first with the enlargement, then with the development of a new attitude towards the neighbourhood policy and later transforming into the Eastern Partnership initiative. I would therefore assess the initiative positively, as well-focused and providing space for Eastern European countries to choose their path, speed and co-operation with the EU. The first decade of the Eastern Partnership transformed the region dramatically, a transformation that not many politicians or analysts were expecting to see.

For the next decade we should look for something different, something more ambitious and more adjusted to the already-existing needs and future possibilities of the region. That is why I would call the upcoming decade an “integrational decade”. The countries which have chosen an association agreement-based relationship with the EU must be given the tools, as well as a possibility, to integrate into the EU’s internal market, programmes, initiatives and to become fully-fledged partners of the Union. I think they learnt a lot through this transformational period of ten years and now, with the experience and the growing potential to be not just a consumer but a contributor to the EU policy line, they have to be given the possibility to work alongside EU policies, and even within certain sectors.

How do you think it should be addressed? We see two main tracks in the Eastern Partnership – the countries which are associated members, have the association agreements, the free trade agreements, the visa-free wavers agreements, etc.; and then there are the countries which have different approaches, such as Armenia which has a looser partnership, Azerbaijan which definitely is much more focussed on an economic level, and even Belarus which has a different situation. Regarding the Eastern partnership tracks, how should it be addressed? Is it sufficient to allow them to evolve naturally?

First of all, I would see the Eastern Partnership as an inclusive space which provides possibilities for countries to choose. I think it is very important to keep this initiative alive politically, and filled with new initiatives and new ambitious tasks. It is the responsibility of politicians as well as experts to present those new tasks which they are currently working on. Regarding the Eastern Partnership, we have to be pragmatic and see things as they go. There is not only one “category”, or a one-size of partnership fitting all countries. The EU has to be an open-minded partner. It has to give some time to the neighbouring countries in order to assess and judge the example of others before them. Indeed, it is true that countries with association agreements are different. They are already very committed to the EU: not acknowledging their European perspective is a political mistake.

Above all we have a great challenge from the Russian Federation, which sees any success of the Eastern Partnership as an attack against its national strategic interests. I think this approach is dated, compared to the 21st century approach based on multilateralism and co-operation, with the right of countries to choose which way they want to go. The three countries you mentioned are different and they have to individualise. Armenia will probably be more ambitious. I hope Azerbaijan will choose a pragmatic and effective platform for co-operation with the EU. There are mutual interests, but it might take more time to develop. With Belarus, I am less optimistic, mainly because of political conditionality. Belarus would be a big market, centrally placed, having over 1,000 kilometres of its border with the EU. I believe that transformation in Belarus might happen very quickly, but we still need to be careful. We should not neglect the democratic criteria in order for the country to build a different future.

The Eastern Partnership’s impact does not stop on the Eastern borders of those countries. I believe the EU is also having a great impact on the Russian society itself, and I think any success within the Eastern Partnership is reflected in the atmosphere and internal debate within the Russian Federation. That is why presenting the EU as an equal and open-minded partner to Eastern European countries will give a very strong signal for our future relationship with, I hope, a democratic Russia.

There seems to be signs of opening from the Belarusian side towards the West, balancing the pressure that the Kremlin is putting on Minsk. Will there be some moves on Brussels’s side to reflect the apparent Belarusian willingness towards change? For instance, the US Secretary of State visited Minsk in early February. Is there an opportunity here for the EU as well?

We have seen some attempts in the past from Minsk to balance its western and eastern relationships, based on tactical decisions. I think President Lukashenka is a great political player in this regard. He moves from one direction to another, depending on economic results and on internal politics very professionally. I currently see another attempt from him to shift more towards the West because of the strained relationship with Moscow and with Putin himself. Yet I would not say that this translates into a strategic change because there is no opening from within the society. Belarus still implements the death penalty, the control of media… many national policy-lines have not evolved. We do observe some positive signals, but it is not yet enough to believe that the change is real and long-term.

I have the impression that Lukashenka sees that there is less pressure from the West, especially on human rights issues in Belarus. He probably views that as an opportunity to engage in dialogue without having to really address the internal situation…

Exactly. I think he is a very smart person, in complete control. He has some personal interests to remain in power, because of wealth, of his family, etc. We always have to ask ourselves if the interests at stake are the ones of Belarus, or Lukashenka’s. For example regarding the construction of the Ostrovets nuclear power station. It holds Russian strategic interests through Rosatom. I believe that the project has a clear strategic line which I want to put on the negotiating table – the Ostrovets nuclear power station is a great risk for the whole region, and for the EU altogether since it is built on the border with the EU. It does not only concern Belarus but also millions of people living around.

We therefore have to address the risk based on European solidarity rather than on promises of the Belarusian authorities to implement some security measures. It’s like buying a new car with no brakes, and a promise to install the brakes after two months or after you already crashed it into a wall. We do not observe any change of Lukashenka’s behaviour in this regard. If he changed his policy line towards the opposition, then I would be more inclined to believe there is real change.

I would also like to get some of your assessment of how you see things in Ukraine, which is a critical country for the EU. Ukraine is one of the most important countries in the neighbourhood. How do you see the changes there and how do you assess the new administration and parliament in this process?

I think we need to respect the political results of elections in Ukraine. The new leadership, with its own new style, has its own vision on the country’s future. There is no questioning of the Europeanisation process in Ukraine. It is important, Ukraine has no alternative, especially from a security point of view. Once again it proves that Ukraine made the right decision to choose the European political and economic reforms path. The shift in leadership will not be automatic, especially regarding the parliament. We still observe some unnecessary moves. I hope we will see a clearer shift from the turbo regime to a more effective working regime. I think the society should be given a chance to listen to the debates and understand them better.

Generally speaking, I think we are in a good mutual trust-based partnership with Ukraine. We speak openly, with both criticism and appraisal. I see a growing understanding on many topics, which probably could not have happened three or four years ago. Through experiences, Ukraine has learnt that the EU is not an easy partner. We condition a lot of our programmes and assistance, but it is for good. We should not abandon our principle of conditionality at all in our relationship with Eastern Partnership countries.

You mentioned security as an issue and the reforms. Do you think Europe is doing enough to support Ukraine in this whole process? Or is there opportunity to do more?

I think we always have a chance to do more and better, but what we have tested in the case of Ukraine, through the support group for Ukraine with Peter Wagner and coordination of reforms, is something we have to apply in the case of other countries.

It is a good format for other countries.

It is, absolutely. Regarding Eastern Partnership countries, we have to move from policy to reforms. Those countries are in a comprehensive process of state-building, sometimes from scratch. I therefore think the coordination group established for Ukraine should be applied in other countries. I would also recommend the EU to reshape its representation and delegations of the EU, they should be sectorial-based and more pro-reform. Those groups should not be made up of classical diplomats but of experts on reforms. We need different expertise, different involvement, may be less rotation in those representations. We have a golden chance to prove the effectiveness of the European concept. If that process becomes a real success story, other countries will say “we can follow that, maybe to a lesser degree or different speed, but we can apply it”. After Ukraine, I am looking forward to the next decade to expand more in Moldova, in Georgia, in Armenia and Azerbaijan, later maybe in Belarus and other countries. It will take some time to build a new way of thinking and a new public system in those countries, and only then we will see results bringing those countries to something as candidate-level.

You mentioned trying to get other Europeans on board. I think one of the most challenging things is also communicating that this is a transformative process taking place with the EU at the helm. How can we, as supporters of these projects, better communicate to the wider Europe?

It is a two-sided task. On the EU side we have to be very clear, especially regarding the EU we want to see in 10 or 20 years from today. The question is – are we going to build borders between us and non-member states, or are we going to have a policy-line permitting that ready and willing countries will be invited? I think the second option should prevail. Europe is still divided and we have different categories of European states. We should definitely not create a second category of membership of the EU. It might take time for those countries to adapt to EU criteria, but it is a very strategic promise. The EU is still incomplete, because of our internal situation, of political and economic developments, but I expect that it will be one of the questions asked after the conference on the future of Europe. We are a rule-based community. The same rules must be applied to all neighbourhood countries. It should therefore be the same rules for the Western Balkans or for Eastern Europe, because nothing has changed, Article 49 [of the treaty of the European Union] still remains as it is.

On the other side, those countries have to be active in public diplomacy and developing people-to-people contacts and explain the achievements that were made. I see Ukraine does it. Looking at the situation back in 2013, and at what we have now in 2020, we see massive change. We are already speaking to a different society, to different political entities. There is more understanding, more trust and a more common agenda. As I said, the EU should not invent any new progress initiatives for the Eastern Partnership. We have enough and we now should include those countries in the discussions like climate change, digital union, migration package… we should invite them to contribute, to be equal partners in this regard. Analysing the results, we will be able to judge if they are ready and can contribute to our common cause. Overall, I think this understanding should prevail, not “us and them”, but “us together”.

You have mentioned that success in these countries will maybe impact the Russian society. Yet, we have to deal with the Kremlin as it is today, with Putin looking to stay indefinitely in power. What do you make of these voices, in some parts of the West in particular, which are calling for a renewed strategic dialogue with Russia, without any real concessions from the Kremlin’s side? Do you think this is a challenge that could divide Europe and also impact the success of all the work that is taking place within the Eastern Partnership?

It is a paradox that in the 21st century, in parallel with European integration, we see an increasing authoritarian Russian Federation. Historical revisionism, attempts to influence countries’ choices, to get involved into Western European elections, campaigns, influences on certain politicians and the rest. The Russian presence in Europe today is less cultural, but more political. Yet not all countries and not all political parties agree on this analysis, and it is very regrettable. I see very unfortunate tendencies within the EU to not really learn from each other’s mistakes, but act only after something happens in their own countries. The last example for me is my Spanish colleagues who are now organising events about disinformation and propaganda, after the Catalonian referendum issue. They did not believe that Russians were involved in the 2016 Brexit campaign. It was not enough to learn from past examples, they probably did not understand what we, in the Baltic countries, have been dealing with. It is very unfortunate because the Kremlin has a very ambitious policy. Russia has not abandoned ambitions to be an alternative to European projects, based on different values; it provides its own explanations for the Second World War or the disintegration of the former Soviet Union.

The country has not come to terms with its history and it wants to change our own perception of it, things that our society has already taken for granted. We shouldn’t be naïve, and we shouldn’t think these things happen randomly. I believe that the Russian policy-line is very systematic, organised and well-financed.

The first countries feeling the impact of this strategy are the countries of the Eastern Partnership. This propaganda and disinformation strategy should have been assessed by the EU much sooner. It is our role, both the EU and the neighbour countries from Eastern Europe, to resist these strategies. Information war is sometimes the start of bigger events. If we do not want to get more involved, we should have a strong and consistent response based on clear principles. If we forget events that have happened, such as the annexation of Crimea, then we are simply neglecting history and we do not understand what is going on. My country, Lithuania, is already contributing, but we should have more understanding from our European partners to not let Russian chauvinism and aggressive nationalism be implemented against some member countries and political forces of the European Union. I hope we can learn from history, otherwise we are bound to repeat it.

Petras Auštrevičius is a member of the European Parliament from Lithuania. He serves on the Committee on Foreign Affairs and is the Rapporteur of the European Parliament on recommendations to the Council, the Commission and the VP/HR on the Eastern Partnership, in the run up to the June 2020 Summit.

Adam Reichardt is the editor in chief of New Eastern Europe and co-host of the Talk Eastern Europe.

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