The EU’s often-maligned Eastern Partnership policy (EaP) has reached its fifth bi-annual summit, which will take place on 24 November in Brussels. This is an achievement in itself. The first summit, in Prague in 2009, was a poor start, marred by the low turnout of top EU leaders and soon after the Russia-Georgia war. The third, in Vilnius in 2013, was rocked by Russian hostility, the rows with Armenia and Ukraine, and the beginnings of the EuroMaidan protests in Kyiv. At the fourth summit, in Riga in 2015, there was some doubt that the policy would survive at all. But it has. So what can we expect from this summit?
There certainly appear to be no big deliverables. The populist surge in Europe has politicised any discussion of further EU expansion, and made migration a toxic issue. Eastern Europe has become a proxy for domestic disputes within the EU, most obviously at the Dutch referendum in April 2016, when 61% voted against the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement, albeit only on a 32% turnout. This necessitated some political gymnastics around the European Council meeting in December 2016. A declaration that the Association Agreement “does not confer on Ukraine the status of a candidate country for membership of the Union” came together in the creative format of Member States meeting held in parallel in order to avoid a formal institutional decision gutting the whole purpose of the EaP. Hungary has also threatened to become another ‘veto power’ and derail the process in some unspecified manner due to a row over Ukraine’s downgrading of teaching in minority languages. The EU has now reached agreement on language that acknowledges the European aspirations of the front-runners. However, the question remains of whether the front-runners themselves are fine with this.
Above all, there is Russia, which has not given up its deep hostility to the Eastern Partnership. Moscow is still working hard to attract the six EaP states into its alternative Eurasian Economic Union, although in practical terms, discrediting the EU and encouraging apathy and isolation in the region works just as well. Russia’s anti-EU propaganda in Eastern and Western Europe therefore works in parallel and requires confrontation in parallel.
The Eastern Partnership manages to be criticised both for doing too little and for doing too much, but it has nevertheless survived and delivered. Most of its achievements have come in recent years. Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine now have Association Agreements and free trade agreements. Ukraine’s was delayed by the Dutch referendum, but came into force in September 2017. The same three countries now have visa-free travel to the EU.
The EU’s Common Aviation Area is open to Georgia and Moldova, with Ukraine possibly to follow soon. In the Eastern Partnership’s ‘second division’, a ‘Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement’ (an Association Agreement without the ‘Deep and Comprehensive’ ambitions on trade) was initialled with Armenia in March 2017. Negotiations began with Azerbaijan in February 2017, and Belarus has come in from the cold. Belarus is still an autocracy, as is Azerbaijan, but it is diversifying its foreign policy and economic options as Russia tries to tie it ever closer.
Despite this apparent progress, the region still roils with dissatisfaction at the slow pace of progress and the limited ambitions of the EaP initiative. Corruption and state capture remain enormous problems, while local elites often try to instrumentalise the EaP for their own purposes. Moldova has elected a pro-Russian president, backed by an oligarch who has taken over all political institutions while mouthing and discrediting pro-EU slogans. In Ukraine, President Poroshenko will base his re-election strategy in 2019 on closer relations with the EU and rashly promised an audience of schoolchildren recently that they would as adults “live in the EU”. This commitment came at the same time as a similar process of “re-oligarchisation” threatens to take hold in the country.
The modest prospects for further EU integration of the eastern neighbourhood may not be wholly unwelcome in many member states. In truth, there is little real ambition within the EU to upscale the EaP at present. After so many recent achievements, there needs to be a focus on implementation rather than dramatic new initiatives. Nevertheless, the Eastern Partnership needs leverage to be effective, or local elites will backslide. It has to keep moving in order to prevent reform processes from losing momentum.
Many see the solution as “status quo plus”. The European Parliament used the same formula in its resolution on the eve of the summit, calling for an “Eastern Partnership-plus”. This envisages an EaP+ model for associated countries that have made substantial progress on EU-related reforms, allowing the EU to offer them the possibility of joining the customs union, energy union, digital union or even the Schengen area and abolishing mobile roaming tariffs.
Practical measures for EaP+ include wrapping the Association Agreements in ever denser networks of cooperation. This could include an extension of TENs (Trans-European Networks) funding for upgraded and new transport links. Ukraine can be integrated into ENPSOG (gas) and ENTSO (electricity) networks. More can be done to integrate Ukraine into Europe’s energy infrastructure and finish off the impressive moves it has made away from energy dependency on Russia, especially if North Stream 2 is to deprive Ukraine of much-needed transit revenue. For example, additional reverse flow gas could come from the new Polish LNG terminal via swap schemes or by adding a short interconnector under the European Commission’s Fund for Common Interests.
People also need to be connected, and the benefits of closer EU ties need to be more obvious in everyday life. Only three million Ukrainians currently have biometric passports allowing them to take advantage of visa-free travel. The EU should keep pushing for cheaper travel, even though a putative deal for Ryanair to fly from Kyiv airport fell through in 2017. The main national carrier, Ukraine International Airlines, is also trying to go low-cost. EU states abolished mobile roaming charges in June 2017 - the EaP states should be next in line.
Ukraine and other states need some tough love. Maintaining strict conditionality, including introducing claw-back mechanisms if reforms are not implemented properly, is all-important. Equally important is warmer language and embracing positive EaP contributions to overall European security and prosperity. This is particularly crucial because such language should serve as a substitute for the endless pointless rows about an eventual “membership perspective”. Article 49 is clear enough on this issue and there are dangers in politicising the EaP, which may push it backwards. Ultimately, EaP states will not join the EU until they are ready. That can be a parallel discussion.
United by the Russian Threat
Finally, one thing that ought to be clearer after Russia’s constant interventions in the French and German elections as well as the Catalan controversy is that EU member states share many of the same problems with Eastern Europe. There is no “Ukraine crisis” in isolation or even a “Russia problem”. All of Europe, inside and outside the EU, find themselves bound by the same fate.
About the author: Andrew Wilson is Senior Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations