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Reimagining the Eastern Partnership: It is time for the European Union to embrace the Associated Trio

Many of the EU’s closest neighbours are now going in opposite directions. Whilst some are actively rejecting integration, the states of the Associated Trio continue to express interest. Brussels would be wise to acknowledge such enthusiasm.

October 22, 2021 - Nick Lokker - Articles and Commentary

The presidents of Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine together with the president of the European Council at the Batumi International Conference in July 2021. Photo: Presidential administration of Ukraine wikimedia.org

The European Union’s Eastern Partnership (EaP) is facing an identity crisis. In the years since the programme’s inception, the bloc’s relationships with its six former Soviet neighbours have diverged into two distinct groupings. On the one hand, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine have pushed resolutely forward on their path to European integration. These states now cooperate as part of the Associated Trio format in order to advance their common goal of EU membership. On the other hand, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Belarus have strayed far from EU values and have shown a lack of commitment to deepening relations. Brussels can no longer ignore this dichotomy. As a result, the European Union must fully embrace the Associated Trio if it wishes to achieve its strategic goals in its eastern neighbourhood.

The 2009 Prague Joint Declaration that established the EaP outlined shared ambitions to “accelerate political association and further economic integration between the European Union and interested partner countries.” The declaration also noted that relations would be “based on commitments to the principles of international law and to fundamental values, including democracy, the rule of law, and the respect for human rights.” Although the European Union took care not to explicitly link EaP membership to eventual EU accession, the geostrategic rationale for the framework was evident. By promoting the internal transformation of the six EaP countries in line with its own values, the European Union stood to benefit from increased stability on its borders as well as heightened regional influence in relation to Russia.

Mixed results

At the time of the Prague Declaration, it was reasonable to be optimistic that EaP members would fulfil their commitments. The previous decades had seen remarkable democratic transformations throughout Eastern Europe. This resulted in the accession of ten post-communist countries to the bloc (the eleventh, Croatia, would join in 2013). Many in the European Union assumed that the EaP nations would follow in their footsteps, with the bloc’s self-proclaimed soft power and the attractiveness of accession serving as catalysts for reform.

For certain countries, this assumption proved correct. In Ukraine, popular support for EU integration led to the ousting of President Viktor Yanukovych during Euromaidan in 2014. Since then, Kyiv has made important, if incomplete progress in various areas of reform. Georgia, too, has come a long way in recent years and has earned praise from the European Commission for strengthening its democratic institutions. The state even asked European Council President Charles Michel to help the country find a path forward from its political crisis earlier this year. Finally, Moldovans delivered a strong electoral mandate to the pro-European reform agenda of Maia Sandu’s Party of Action and Solidarity in July’s parliamentary elections.

The other three EaP countries, however, have demonstrated their weak commitment to the principles of the Prague Declaration. The most egregious example is Belarus, where the Lukashenka regime has cracked down on political opposition over the past year. Minsk even hijacked a plane transporting a prominent government critic. After the European Union imposed sanctions in response, Belarus suspended its participation in the Eastern Partnership and took a decisive step away from the bloc. Meanwhile, Armenia and Azerbaijan waged war over the contested Nagorno-Karabakh region in late 2020, violating the commitment to international law enshrined in the Prague Declaration. Both countries have kept Brussels at a distance, refraining from pursuing significantly deeper integration. While it is true that Armenia has made limited progress on internal reform, Azerbaijan, like Belarus, remains outright autocratic.

A political oversight?

Despite this clear divergence, the European Union has so far failed to properly differentiate between these two sets of EaP countries. Western European member states, in particular, continue to promote an “inclusive and unified policy towards the EU’s eastern neighbourhood”. Overall, they are hesitant to back “the creation of fixed groups that could jeopardise the inclusion of other partner countries.” This explains the European Commission’s lack of support for a proposal to pursue faster, deeper integration with the Associated Trio in various sectors such as energy, transport, and security cooperation.

Keeping the Trio at arm’s length is a mistake. Despite the current Commission’s supposed ambitions to be a “geopolitical” player, its current one size fits all EaP policy betrays a lack of strategic vision. Although Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine have all made positive steps forward in recent years, this progress is fragile. Efforts toward internal reform are incomplete and each country remains in the crosshairs of Russia’s aggressive foreign policy. To secure these gains, the European Union must unambiguously embrace the Trio by providing a credible long-term membership plan. This could possibly be accomplished through progressively deeper integration in the short to medium term.

Brussels should build practically on the success of the Association Agreements signed in 2016 and 2017. While this step undoubtedly encouraged the Trio nations to draw closer to the bloc, the European Union cannot rest on this accomplishment. Instead, it should take two concrete steps to demonstrate its commitment to Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. First, it should formally recognise the Associated Trio as a distinct grouping within the Eastern Partnership. Michel’s recent use of the term was a positive sign and a first for a senior EU official. This should become the norm in all high-level communications, including from the Commission and member states. Second, Brussels must reconsider proposals to pursue integration on a sector by sector basis. With regards to energy and transport, it could support Moldova and Ukraine’s participation in the Three Seas Initiative. In relation to security, it could also offer third-country status to the Trio states in various Permanent Structured Cooperation projects.

None of the Associated Trio nations are currently ready for EU accession. Despite their progress, they remain far from meeting the full Copenhagen Criteria for membership. Furthermore, the European Union must overcome its ongoing internal crises and enlargement fatigue before expanding further. Yet Brussels should not disregard the Trio’s intentions. Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine have all demonstrated a clear desire to integrate with the bloc. These countries should not be held back by those who do not want to integrate. By offering a dedicated approach to the Associated Trio, the European Union stands to gain geopolitical influence in the region. This would also help showcase the enduring ideological appeal of the European project.

Nick Lokker is the 2021 Europe Fellow for Young Professionals in Foreign Policy and the Joseph S. Nye, Jr. Research Intern for the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). 

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