The EU Eastern Partnership Summit
The recently growing tensions in Eastern Europe, such as the crisis of the Belarusian-Polish border and migration or the military strengthening of Russia around Ukraine, are a reminder of the incompleteness of the European unification project. But they place the EU’s Eastern Partnership Program (EaP) at the center of European policy.
On Wednesday 15 December, the EU will discuss this program at the sixth Eastern Partnership summit with its official partners from Eastern Europe, in Brussels.
Post-Soviet states like Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Belarus are not just neighbors, but part of Europe. It was therefore timely that the EU established the Eastern Partnership as a special program for these six countries in 2009.
The EAP has since brought substantial results for some of the six: pro-reform forces have been mobilized; EU financial assistance and market access have eased financial crises and hostile Russian trade embargoes; and Association Agreements with Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova (the “trio of associations”) have improved relationships, trade flows and people-to-people contacts.
Nonetheless, the overall situation in the Eastern Partnership region looks grim.
Economic growth has been erratic, corruption exposed but not undone, and reforms absent, weakly implemented or even reversed.
Fatigue and loss of sense of the region’s strategic importance has taken hold in Brussels, the EU Member States and Washington.
Worse, the Kremlin is using all the means at its disposal to reduce the sovereignty of the six Eastern Partnership states.
Despite the enormous challenges, the vision is fading of a “whole, free and peaceful” Europe. This once salient strategic project aims to create a unified and secure Europe based on democratic principles, the rule of law and respect for human rights.
The plan involves the promotion of well-governed democratic societies, economic prosperity and international security in Eastern Europe. Today, this vision must be remembered and rejuvenated.
It is important to note that the alternative to such a pan-European project is not the current status quo. The internal problems of the Eastern Partnership countries and the external threats posed to them by Russia will lead, if left unchecked, to a setback, if not worse.
The rival vision of Moscow
Moscow’s counter-vision is a very different security order based on the domination of the great powers and their privileged spheres of influence and implying that some states are less sovereign than others.
Unlike Russian propaganda, the West is not in a confrontational geopolitical competition with Russia. The inclusive vision of a common, cooperative and peaceful future for the entire European continent includes a democratic future Russia that adheres to international law and the jointly agreed European security order.
To realize and revitalize the vision of a peaceful and united Europe, the EU needs to modernize the Eastern Partnership. More specifically, it involves:
Reinforced differentiation. The existing multilateral framework of the Eastern Partnership already enables regional cooperation on vital issues such as security, connectivity and climate change, and strengthens the collective weight and visibility of the Eastern Partnership countries vis-à-vis Brussels.
However, to tackle the daunting challenges facing each Eastern Partnership country, the EU still needs to differentiate and intensify its bilateral relations in the Eastern Neighborhood. Brussels should better respond to the unique circumstances of each country through appropriate policies, targeted incentives and personalized action plans.
Deep integration. For the trio of Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia associations, greater differentiation would mean deeper integration into the EU in several areas, including increased support for the approximation of their legislation with the EU acquis, their increased participation the Union’s single market (in particular as regards energy and banking) and improved cooperation in areas such as transport, digitization and security.
It also means faster integration into more and more internal EU programs and agencies, a closer overall institutional relationship and expanded high-level bilateral and multilateral meeting formats.
Extended security cooperation. The EU needs to better ensure political stability, economic prosperity and the success of reform efforts in the Eastern Partnership region and, more importantly, address the continuing deterioration of security in Western and Eastern Europe.
To do this, it is imperative to increase the EU’s security cooperation with the trio of associations. The EU’s lack of engagement has hampered its influence and value as a serious geopolitical partner, hampered the success of the Eastern Partnership and encouraged other actors to advance their positions.
If the EU is to become a strategically autonomous geopolitical actor, if the Eastern Partnership is to bring about real change and if Europe is to be secure, the EU must start investing serious thinking and resources in the security of its Eastern neighborhood. .
Strong defense against hybrid threats. Deepening cooperation in tackling hybrid threats is crucial for the future security of the Eastern Partnership region and the EU.
A new European toolbox on hybrid threats is expected to be implemented with the trio of associations. The toolbox should cover different parts of the EU and national structures and include measures such as improved strategic communication, increased visibility of the EU at citizen level and increased support for independent local media.
A democratic commitment won back. In its increasingly opportunistic and transactional approach to the Eastern Partnership, the EU has often turned a blind eye to slow, manipulated, absent or reversed reforms.
As a result, the wider EU agenda is compromised and Brussels loses credibility.
While wider geopolitical ramifications cannot be ignored, the EU should not abandon its main political instrument – its normative power.
To ensure the sustainable implementation of reforms and uphold the enabling democratic vision, the EU should focus more on institution building, systematic and ‘smart’ conditionality and broad and diverse engagement of civil society.