Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova versus the EU’s Eastern Partnership?
The EU’s Eastern Partnership has been a key instrument in promoting democratic development in the region and in supporting democratically-minded actors in authoritarian states.
The democratic record of Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia is not perfect, but granting them EU candidate status would further support their journey towards stable democracy, strong rule of law and an economy of viable market.
In doing so, the unity of the Eastern Partnership should be preserved to avoid fragmenting the EU’s Eastern Neighbourhood. Experts and officials also need to watch out for the rhetoric that turns candidate status decisions into a “now or never” scenario.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has accelerated the discussion of a new format for relations with Ukraine, but also for Moldova and Georgia.
The need for enhanced cooperation has already been recognized at the last EaP summit in December 2021 and pressure is mounting to grant the three countries EU candidate status.
The decision is to be taken by the European Council and will be based on the European Commission’s assessment of their suitability for membership in accordance with the Copenhagen criteria, but also in relation to political considerations.
Several aspects will have to be weighed before the decision is taken, whether it is to assess the political momentum both in the EU and in the country concerned, to fairly assess the democratic record of the trio, to bear in mind the overall coherence of the Eastern Partnership policy, while managing people’s expectations.
The final decision of the EU institutions on granting EU candidate status to Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia is inherently political, but should not be too far removed from the situation on the ground.
So far, the Eastern Partnership policy — with its dedicated financial, administrative and technical support — has effectively guided their democratic progress.
According to the results of the Eastern Partnership Index 2020-21 – a monitoring tool produced by the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum – the trio has already cemented considerable normative and legal rapprochement with the EU.
Analyzing democratic developments in the Eastern Partnership countries since 2015, the results of the Eastern Partnership Index show steady improvement in Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia towards the standards set by the Copenhagen criteria — a market economy that functioning, a stable democracy, a strong rule of law and the ability to implement all EU legislation.
That’s not to say things are perfect: progress hasn’t always been linear, and inertia and backsliding are also apparent.
Legislative frameworks are often in place, but gaps persist between the law and the implementation of standards. All three countries continue to struggle with corruption, and the independence of the judiciary in Georgia and Ukraine has deteriorated.
However, while these difficulties should not be underestimated, it should also not be forgotten that becoming an EU candidate country is only the beginning of the accession process.
The democratic progress made so far by Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia testifies to the far-reaching effects of the political framework of the Eastern Partnership and their Association Agreements and Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreements with the EU, and insight into the potential for democratic development of a continued complementary regional pathway under EU candidate status.
At the same time, granting EU candidate status to the AA trio should go hand in hand with maintaining a strong regional Eastern Partnership framework.
While the principles of differentiation and conditionality have helped secure progress for Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, the EU must be wary of further fragmentation of relations with and within its Eastern Neighbourhood.
The Eastern Partnership policy — particularly in its multilateral dimension — has functioned as a framework to address key priorities for the six countries, such as democracy, human rights, rule of law and structural reforms. Coherence in the Eastern Partnership region will be key to addressing common challenges that the region faces and will continue to face, such as corruption, rule of law, connectivity and climate change.
Azerbaijan and Belarus
For Azerbaijan and Belarus, the multilateral strand of the Eastern Partnership was the only possible platform for dialogue. The results of the EaP index show that Belarus and Azerbaijan – countries without the structured framework provided by the AA and the DCFTA – remained at the bottom of the ranking.
Both countries scored lower in 2020-21 compared to previous editions of the index, suggesting that the gap between associated and non-associated countries has widened significantly.
Maintaining a strong regional framework while acting on the applications of Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia for EU candidate status would recognize that the Eastern Partnership has produced substantial results, sending a message to stakeholders in Armenia and democratic actors in Azerbaijan and Belarus about the opportunity that exists for their countries.
Likewise, as discussions on granting EU candidate status continue, European stakeholders, the governments of Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, and the expert community should refrain from framing the granting EU candidate status with “now or never” rhetoric.
The EU will continue to support the democratic development of Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, whether or not they have EU candidate country status, and this should be clearly communicated and expectations carefully managed.
Giving the impression of abandonment if candidate status is not granted, while European values are defended on the front line in Ukraine, is a risk that democratic Europe should not take.