What can the EU offer its eastern neighbors? – European integration
On November 15, the EU’s Eastern Partnership (EaP) summit with six post-Soviet states – Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine – will be held in Brussels. Finally. The last meeting was over four years ago. In 2019 there was an anniversary celebration, in 2020 only a short video conference.
There is something to discuss: Ukraine, Belarus, Nagorno-Karabakh. However, experts have been talking about the “death” of EAP for a few years. With the formalization of the so-called âTrio Initiativeâ in May 2021 by states that have concluded association agreements with the EU – Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova – it is at least threatened by a split . This is sufficient reason to wonder about the consequences of tailor-made offers to our eastern neighbors.
When the Eastern Partnership was founded in 2009, its aim was to create the conditions necessary for the acceleration of the political association of Eastern Partnership States and the pursuit of economic integration. But what is it all about? Peace, economic development or democracy?
What is EaP?
From the point of view of the Trio Initiative countries – Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova – the peace dimension certainly plays a decisive role. In view of the territorial disputes provoked by Russia, this is hardly surprising. The EU, however, refuses to expand the rather rudimentary security dimension of the Eastern Partnership, as the three states would like. Brussels knows how this would be received in Moscow. Summit statements routinely state that the Eastern Partnership is “not directed against anyone” – although the Kremlin may see it differently.
The objective of the Ukrainian, Georgian and Moldovan governments is the same. Even if this often arouses disbelief in Europe: all three want to join the EU. As quickly as possible.
The Eastern Partnership is made up of bilateral agreements and a âmultilateral trackâ. In both cases, economic integration dominates the agenda. This is hardly surprising, as it also dominates in the EU itself. In discussions around the post-2020 Eastern Partnership premises, the focus is on ‘institutions, rule of law and security’ and a stronger commitment to climate change resilience and digital transformation. Particular ambitions continue to exist for the âdevelopment of resilient and sustainable economiesâ. At its heart is a âregional economic and investment planâ which aims to mobilize up to 17 billion euros.
Who cares about democracy, some would say. But according to Council President Michel, the Eastern Partnership is also a “catalyst for democracy, good governance reforms and the rule of law”. Sometimes it works better, sometimes not so well, but overall it’s pretty bad. This is where improvements must and will be made, especially through the increased use of what is called âconditionalityâ.
Special treatment for the Trio?
Here we come back to the Trio Initiative. It must serve to support and advance European ambitions. The objective of the Ukrainian, Georgian and Moldovan governments is the same. Even if this often arouses disbelief in Europe: all three want to join the EU. As quickly as possible.
But a trio alone doesn’t solve any problem. And the countries of the Trio are not perfect either. Contrary to popular opinion in the three states, there is currently no prospect of EU membership due to Russian reservations – although Brussels may well consider them – but because the states are still far from fulfilling the relevant criteria. The fact that the Eastern Partnership is not a fast track to joining the EU should in fact be clear. But given that different EU states have different agendas and sometimes speak in deliberately cryptic terms, they have nevertheless probably raised unrealistic expectations.
In light of recent developments, however, the EU seems willing to offer the Trio ‘more’ – if certain reform criteria are met. Above all, the EU fears that states will otherwise take a less pro-European path. What this could be, however, is not yet clear. This is one of the reasons why one should not expect a formal mention of the Trio in the final declaration of the Eastern Partnership summit.
Nevertheless, the Trio initiative is here to stay – and it is the expression of justified demands. Brussels will have to think about how to respond to these demands. But in return, the three states must also deliver. Judicial reforms and the fight against corruption, for example, must be approached in a more coherent manner. The key is to fight for more democracy, the rule of law and economic progress, especially out of self-interest. Then the ball is again in the Brussels court. And the EU faces another important task: to maintain the balance to such an extent that the Eastern Partnership can continue to exist as a whole despite the different developments in the different partner states.
The further escalation of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan gives the EU yet another important reason to engage with Eastern Partnership states beyond the trio.
In Belarus today, democracy and the rule of law are foreign words. Therefore, Minsk announced that it would suspend its membership in the EaP in response to EU sanctions at the end of June. Nevertheless, the EU wants to continue supporting the Belarusian people. An additional 30 million euros will be made available. A vast investment plan with grants and loans has also already been agreed in Brussels, but linked to a democratic transition. Burying the inclusive EaP approach and putting Belarusian concerns on the back burner to focus on the Trio would send a fatal signal to the democracy movement.
The case of Armenia
At the same time, Armenia offers perhaps the best reasons to stick to an inclusive Eastern Partnership structure. Armenia is the only Eastern Partnership state that is also a member of the Eurasian Economic Union, yet it has signed a partnership agreement with the EU. It has maintained its pragmatic and constructive relations with the EU despite all its dependence imposed by Moscow on Russia. France in particular, with its large Armenian diaspora, is fighting to prevent the rift between Armenia and the Trio States from widening (even more). The math is understandable: Armenia could be pushed into even greater dependence on Russia.
The further escalation of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan gives the EU yet another important reason to engage with Eastern Partnership states beyond the trio. So far, Brussels has missed the opportunity to act as a serious mediator. More EU engagement is needed here, not less.
For the Azerbaijani autocracy, the following is also true: despite all the strategic considerations regarding the differentiation and inclusiveness of the Eastern Partnership – and all the good economic arguments for close cooperation, including with Baku – the The EU must not throw its principles completely overboard and must constantly examine whether its actions reflect these principles. As in the case of Belarus.
In short, it would be dangerous to focus too much on the Trio States to the detriment of the EAP. Incidentally, this also applies to the three states themselves. There is a lot to criticize about EaP. For example, that the socially just design of reform programs is even less important. But the EU has achieved a lot, not just in terms of increasing trade volumes. EaP is also important because it brings people together. It has led to visa liberalization, it helps young people to broaden their experience and it promotes regional interconnectivity and relations between partner countries. In particular, the latter is more important than ever in times of crisis and must not be compromised.
Giving the peoples of Belarus, Armenia and Azerbaijan a cold shoulder to create space to focus on the Trio States would be Brussels’ biggest mistake. The Eastern Partnership must stick to its inclusive approach. Flexibility can be the order of the day. However, there are good reasons to keep what no longer belongs together.