Bringing Europe’s East Closer to the Centre

, by Johannes Langer

Bringing Europe's East Closer to the Centre

The third summit for the Eastern Partnership (EaP) took place during the Lithuanian EU Presidency on 29-30 November 2013. Instead of further European integration, the meeting was overshadowed by a geopolitical power game between Russia and the EU, which led two Eastern European countries to turn their back to the EU. On a positive note, Moldovans can be hopeful to get visa liberalization at the end of next year.

The 14-page long Joint Declaration passed in Lithuania’s capital Vilnius is a reminder of climate change summits and their declarations: nice words but in fact “watered down” and quite disappointing for observers and all those concerned with the matter. The summit in Vilnius got a lot of headlines, although for the wrong reasons. Thus, some observers see the summit as “a big disappointment.” And yet, the Eastern Partnership (EaP) with six former Soviet states has evolved during the past four years to an important wing of the overall European Neighborhood Policy (ENP). While this initiative might have been a “sleeping beauty” at the beginning, it has developed to a more sturdy policy framework of the EU, despite the fact that it has a very technocratic approach. The cooperation is constantly growing thanks to an ever larger number of projects, platforms and seminars, not least with an important civil society component. However, the EU can hardly provide incentives with the current EaP framework while Russia is able to put economic and political pressure on countries in the post-Soviet space.

Originally proposed by Sweden and Poland, the Eastern Partnership (EaP) was launched at a 2009 summit in Prague in the wake of the 2008 Georgian-Russian War. The eastern neighbors of the EU should get politically associated and provided the chance for deeper economic integration with the EU in exchange for their compliance with EU norms and standards. In short, three components can be highlighted that should bring the EaP countries closer to the EU: 1) Association Agreements to bring support in various policy fields, 2) “Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreements” as a special “carrot” for EaP states (because other third countries would not be offered such a deal) that involves the gradual elimination of tariffs and trade quotas and 3) visa liberalization, one of the most important measures for EaP citizens. The question about the finalité of this initiative is for many EaP countries the prospect of membership, but this notion has been rejected by many EU members that are not so engaged in Eastern Europe and have a stronger focus on the southern dimension of the EU’s neighborhood policy. The EaP countries ultimately hope that their efforts and reforms would help bring them closer to EU membership. The Baltic States, Poland and Sweden try to act in their support, but hardly to any avail.

The EaP project has been a construct on shaky grounds from the outset. The EU is a very asymmetric partner as it is so much more powerful and tries to influence EaP countries on issues like democracy, corruption and human rights, which sometimes run against the interests of EaP countries’ political elite. However, the partnership was started on the basis that already such common values and commitments exist although all of the EaP states face huge challenges. Armenia’s problems with corruption and free elections, Azerbaijan had an increased amount of political prisoners before the last elections and Belarus, the last dictatorship in Europe, shows not any ambition to follow a democratic process. However, the three other countries, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, are also until today riddled with corruption. The EU is, of course, aware about it. However, the question is how to tackle the challenges these countries are facing. So far, the EU was unable to put forward a consistent policy. On the opposite, a surprising fatigue seems to be present in the headquarters in Brussels in how to overcome long-standing conflicts in these countries and how to allow for a democratic reform process.

Significant steps forward have been achieved with two initializations of Association Agreements with Georgia as well as Moldova with the Vilnius Summit. Moldova’s pro-European governing coalition has adopted a number of reforms in compliance with EU demands since 2009. Georgia similarly remains committed to Euro-Atlantic integration even as its new government attempts to gradually relax relations with Russia. Two more countries should have signed Association Agreements too, but Moscow decided otherwise. Armenia and Ukraine both lost interest because Russia convinced their leadership that a Eurasian Customs Union, which should be established by 2015, would be more attractive. It was not only the economic benefit that Russia was able to show to these two countries but import bans on various products put a real economic pressure on these former Soviet republics. The decisions of the political elite also sparked the outrage of citizens. The greatest demonstrations since the Orange Revolution in 2004, illustrate that Ukrainians are indeed interested in strengthening further ties with the EU. Some Armenians also protested at a recent visit of Putin to Yerevan.

One important issue was the visa liberalization where some progress has been made. It is promising, although vague, for citizens of EaP countries. Moldova could be the first of the six countries to get a visa-free regime by the end of 2014. The ultimate goal would be to drop visa requirements for EaP citizens. While agreements such as DCFTAs would benefit most EaP countries in the long-term, costs would arise for local economies in the beginning. One of the main issues for this region is, however, the frozen conflicts in the region. It would be the people-to-people contact that would be one of the decisive issues for the EU to foster in the region – within the conflict areas as well as between EaP and EU citizens. Broader participation of NGOs in the EaP Civil Society Forum will be necessary with the aim to overcome the stalemates in Nagorno-Karabakh, Transnistria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The EU has not played the role yet that it could play, the EaP has not been the forum yet that it could be to bring the people closer to each other and overcome stereotypes.

The next EaP summit will be in Riga in 2015. Much needs to happen until then. More incentives need to be provided by EU members with a clear long-term strategy. The EaP Civil Society Forum needs to be taken seriously. Honest but also visionary proposals need to be accepted. Only through “real” incentives, the government of EaP states will put through reforms that will ultimately help their own citizens to be part of a Europe without borders. Moreover, the approach of a zero-sum game from the actors involved should benefit everyone and go to a win-win approach. No dividing lines but rather highways to connect each other are the way forward. The Eastern Partnership can allow for that. But there is still a long way to go.

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