The Eastern Partnership: On life support?

Opinion piece (ECFR)
19 May 2015

Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkēvičs said in February that the EU’s meeting with its eastern partners in Riga this month would be a “survival summit”. The six partners are a disparate group – but the partnership is worth preserving. Here are five ways the EU can do so.Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkēvičs said in February that the EU’s meeting with its eastern partners in Riga this month would be a “survival summit”. He wasn’t exaggerating. The six partners are a disparate group – and the EU’s member states are divided on the future of the Eastern Partnership. But the partnership is worth preserving. Here are five ways the EU can do so.

1. The EU should decide what the purpose of the partnership is. It has never seemed certain. Some member states want to give the eastern partners a perspective of eventual EU membership; others do not. The eastern partners themselves include three countries (Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine) whose stated aim is to join the EU; two (Azerbaijan and Belarus) whose human rights records and political systems would disqualify them even if they were interested; and one (Armenia) which is so dependent on Russia for its defence that all it can do is try to extract benefits from the EU without provoking Russian retaliation.

At the Eastern Partnership (EaP) summit in Vilnius, in November 2013, the participants acknowledged “the European choice of some partners” and said that the partnership had a particular role in supporting “those who seek an ever closer relationship with the EU”. Ahead of the Riga summit, the EU seems unable even to agree to these anodyne phrases. It should be bolder.

The Treaty on European Union states clearly that any European state which respects EU values “may apply to become a member of the Union”. By refusing to refer to this language, the EU reinforces two Russian arguments: that the EU does not want the Eastern Europeans; and that this is a region of “privileged interests” for Russia. The EU should say that the door to membership remains open – and that Russia has no right to close it.

2. The EU should differentiate clearly between the six partners. There is no point in wasting limited EU resources on countries which are not committed to the partnership’s democratic and free-market principles. EU programmes and funding should flow to the countries that have made the most progress. Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine should get some reward for their efforts. Tbilisi and Kyiv were hoping for visa-free access to the Schengen area (which Moldova already has); they are not going to get it at Riga. The EU needs to find some way of showing ordinary people that having a closer relationship with Brussels brings a country something other than a Russian invasion.

Where the government is uncooperative, as in Azerbaijan and Belarus, the EU should focus more attention on civil society organisations – including by increasing the resources available to the European Endowment for Democracy. Support for civil society does not have to mean support for the political opposition and confrontation with the existing regime: it can cover help and advice for any non-governmental group able to contribute to a country’s progress.

3. The EU should communicate better. At the Vilnius summit, the then Swedish foreign minister, Carl Bildt, said that “[Vladimir] Putin makes you an offer you can’t refuse; the EU makes you an offer you can’t understand.” The EU has to do a much better job of countering misunderstanding and misinformation about the impact of cooperation with the EU. The Ukrainian president’s website is in Ukrainian and Russian; if Petro Poroshenko thinks it is politically acceptable to speak to Russian-speaking Ukrainians in their native language, why does the EU delegation in Kyiv only provide information in Ukrainian and English?

4. The EU should stop thinking that the EaP is a purely technical exercise. Putin is right to think that it could lead to some dramatic changes in Europe. The EaP was never intended to be a geopolitical project, but if it results in some of its members adopting EU standards, open markets, and above all the rule of law, it will produce a decisive break with the Soviet past. The EU needs to understand that such change is inherently threatening to Putin’s interests – which by no means implies that the EU should accommodate him.

5. The EU should assume that Russian hostility to the EU’s relationship with Ukraine will continue. In 2004, Putin said that Russia would welcome Ukrainian membership of the EU. Since 2013, he has exerted enormous efforts to prevent Ukraine getting any closer to the EU. Russia’s objections to the EU–Ukraine Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA), which is the centrepiece of the Association Agreement, are specious. Moscow has no more right to seek amendments to the DCFTA to favour its own economic interests than the EU has to demand changes in the arrangements for the Eurasian Economic Union. Russia clearly wants to ensure that Ukraine cannot profit from the DCFTA; the amendments it has proposed would damage both EU exporters and Ukrainian consumers. The EU should make clear that implementation of the DCFTA will start as scheduled on 31 December. And the EU and its partners should be ready to resist and respond to any Russian retaliation.

Ian Bond is director of foreign policy at the Centre for European Reform. He was a member of the British diplomatic service for 28 years.