The summit of the leaders of the European Union and of the countries of the Eastern Partnership takes place in Brussels tomorrow (Wednesday, 15 December). It promises to be a defining moment in the relationship between the EU and its neighbours to the east: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. In this analysis, the research team of commonspace.eu explore the issues under discussion and explore why for the first time an EaP summit has attracted considerable public attention.
Belarus, also a member of the Eastern Partnership, has suspended its membership following the controversy over the results of the presidential elections last year, and the subsequent crack down on the opposition, which resulted in EU sanctions.
In some ways the absence of Belarus allows the other participants to focus on the other big issues. The EU countries are keen to keep the meeting focused on the core objectives of the Eastern Partnership – good governance and sustainable prosperity. The EU wants to extend its own post pandemic strategy based on recovery, resilience and reform.
The EU can proudly look at the Eastern Partnership as a success story, citing the many milestones reached, including:
- EU-EaP trade exceeding €65 billion in 2020 (+22% in 10 years)
- the EU being the number-one trade partner for four out of six EaP countries
- the EU supporting over 185 000 small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in EaP countries, creating or sustaining 1.65 million jobs
- over 80 000 exchange opportunities provided to young people
- almost 50% of EaP local authorities committing to cutting CO2 emissions
On their part, the EaP countries, whilst also recognising these achievements, come to Brussels with their own agendas – in some ways different, and in some ways more ambitious.
Ahead of the summit, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine, three countries that have already signed an association agreement with the EU, formed the “trio” – an informal grouping aimed at co-ordinating their position in dealing with the EU institutions as they pursue their ambition. This has strengthened their ability to put their case to the EU institutions. Their desire for a full membership perspective in the long term remains, however, not immediately attainable. Enlargement is not on the EU’s agenda at the moment. However some gesture from Brussels is going to be necessary in the Summit’s final declaration, somehow recognising the trio’s aspirations.
Armenia and Azerbaijan do not have membership aspirations, but for them this summit will also be very different. For the first time the EU is going to engage directly in the their complicated relationship. European Council president Charles Michel will be hosting a mini-summit of the leaders of the two countries on the margins of the EaP event. This piece of diplomatic theatre has been difficult to put together, because it not only required the willingness of both president Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan and prime minister Nikol Pashinyan of Armenia to participate, but it also required the acquiescence of Russian president Vladimir Putin, who has spent the best part of the last fifteen months personally engaged in managing this difficult relationship, and in keeping everyone else out of the story. Even if nothing much emerges from the Michel-Aliyev-Pashinyan meeting – and expectations need to be modest – this is an important breakthrough for the EU’s policy in the South Caucasus, and should be welcomed since it can lead to further action and engagement in the future.
The process, the issues, the ambitions
This 6th Summit of the Eastern Partnership is also unusual because of the amount of public debate and discussion that took place ahead of it. This reflects both the increasing importance of the region for the EU, and vice versa, the increasing importance of the EU for the region. It also reflects an increasing awareness on both sides of the importance of this relationship.
A good example of this was the Conference, “The EU and its Eastern Neighbourhood”, held over three sessions at The Hague Humanity Hub in The Hague on Tuesday 23 November 2021 at the initiative of LINKS Europe and the City of The Hague. Over a hundred people participated in all or some of the three sessions, including Ambassadors accredited to the Netherlands, representatives of international organisations, journalists, academics, civil society representatives, students and concerned citizens.
Opening the event, the Head of the Representation of the European Commission in The Netherlands, Didier Herbert, said that the work that the European Union does with its neighbours is something that needs constant maintenance, that can always benefit from improvements and that needs to be constantly checked for its pertinence and relevance.
Internally, the European Union has identified two immediate challenges – the reforms needed for a double transition in the fields of sustainability and renewal. The process has to be implemented whilst still taking into account Europe’s values, and it is important that as part of the process the EU emerges more resilient.
Very similar challenges face the Eastern Partnership countries, with whom the EU has a joint ambition for closer co-operation. The approach is one based on differentiation, ownership and flexibility and the objective is post-covid recovery, resilience, and reform.
The work of the Eastern Partnership has two pillars: Investment and governance
The Investment plan is an ambitious plan strategy with dedicated country flagships and with numerical targets: improving the air quality in 300 cities across the Eastern Partnership region; providing high speed internet for 80% of households; and investing in 20% of small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in the regions. The second pillar is governance and this also requires all sides to act responsibly, identify shared values and show commitment to them.
Covid has tested our collective resilience, but we are emerging out of it stronger. EU solidarity with the Eastern Neighbourhood countries has been tangible. Team Europe (the EU institutions and the member states) have provided 10 million vaccines to the EaP countries – this is one third of all vaccines that have been administered so far. The EaP countries are also in the process of joining the EU digital vaccine certificate.
Didier Herbert concluded his remarks with two observations. He said that in Belarus we are seeing an orchestrated migration crisis. However, we continue to stand by the people of Belarus.
More generally, as regards the Eastern Partnership, “we know our objectives, our priorities and we have an agenda. However, we also need to ask where do we go from here? What do the citizens want?”
The conference was addressed by Ambassador Jaap Frederiks, The Netherlands special representative to Europe and the Eastern Partnership. He said that the forthcoming Eastern Partnership Summit’s main message should be political. “It should underline first and foremost the closeness of our mutual ties, and the EU’s solidarity and support to our Eastern Partners in the face of the many domestic and external challenges that they are experiencing”. Ambassador Frederiks emphasised that the partnership is built on common values. “Respecting these values is a pre-condition for EU support, and trampling on these values will inevitably have consequences for receiving EU financial assistance, or even for the relationship in a wider sense, as is currently the case with Belarus.”
Ambassador Frederiks said that the EU recognises that the Eastern Partnership is an area of sources of instability, which are often exacerbated or made worse by Russia. “It is in our interest as an EU to invest in stability on our eastern borders. Investing in strengthening democratic institutions, the rule of law, and media freedom will make our Eastern partners more resilient, also in the face of external threats”, he said. On the other hand, the Eastern neighbours need themselves to continue to invest in their reform agenda, although we recognise that this takes time and that powerful vested interests remain major obstacles, he added.
Ambassador Frederiks positively assessed the work of the Eastern Partnership to date, saying that it had achieved much, and that the current architecture providing for a multilateral as well as tailor-made bilateral tracks has served us well, but he acknowledged that there was an ongoing debate centring around differentiation versus inclusiveness that was also likely to be part of the Summit’s discussion. Ambassador Frederiks said that a discussion on possible membership, particularly as regards the Associated trio countries was untimely and unhelpful. “None of the three countries will in the foreseeable future qualify for EU membership and focusing on the distant future may result in us taking our eye of the ball in terms of what needs to be done in the immediate future regarding the implementation of each partner’s reform agenda. It will also downplay the significance of our current agreements and the scope they offer for closer political association and further integration in the European single market.” Jaap Frederiks, however, said that that does not mean that there could not be further sectoral co-operation, as long as the principle that this would also be open to all the other EaP countries was recognised. “We look forward to a successful summit that will reflect the geo-political significance of our partnership and will inspire us to continue our co-operation”, Ambassador Frederiks concluded.
During the event in The Hague, the perspective from the Eastern Partnership countries was put across by Ambassador Vsevolod Chentsov, Head of the Ukrainian Mission to the European Union.
He outlined some of the history of the establishment of the Eastern Partnership, and said that the process was flawed from the start because it considered countries like Ukraine as neighbours rather than potential members of the family. Historically, culturally and economically we considered ourselves part of the European family. There was also an approach of ‘a common neighbourhood’.
At the time this was a ‘take it or leave it’ situation, since all the funding was linked to this new neighbourhood framework, and so there was no choice. And so we started to work on a new ‘enhanced agreement’, which initially had a very low ambition. But we managed to push to change this into an Association Agreement, with a strong trade part which later became DCFTA, he said. Chentsov said that the enhanced Association Agreement that came out “was the result of our struggle”, and afterwards it became a blueprint that could be offered to others. The same situation happened with the visa dialogue, which led to a visa liberalisation agreement. Back in 2008 and 2009 visa free dialogue was an expression that was forbidden in discussions with the EU – we could not even talk about or mention the term.
These two instruments are now functioning and are working. “We had to fight for every idea”, the Ambassador said, adding what has been achieved so far is still not enough.
Russia’s war against Ukraine is a direct consequence of Ukraine’s European choice. Therefore, he agreed that the relationship needed to be considered in geopolitical terms. It is not about reforms, or building institutional capacity or funding for these issues, but it is about geopolitical considerations, he said.
Ambassador Chentsov said that Russia considers the EU’s relations with the Eastern Neighbourhood from a geopolitical perspective, even if the EU doesn’t. He said that he agreed that every discussion should be timely and well prepared. He added that the current question to be considered was whether to focus just on the implementation of the Association Agreements, or whether to fix if not the final goal, fix something in between. The Ambassador added that the intermediate goal for Ukraine and the other trio countries, which that would be digestible for the EU in the current conditions, is to join the EU internal market. There is a mutual interest now that this happens.
“Our countries in terms of energy, agriculture and digital transformation are not a liability, but an asset for the EU. This is a gamechanger which should lead to the EU to consider us as part of the family rather than simply neighbours, even for economic reasons. I wish that a political decision in Brussels to open up the prospect for membership, but if it is not possible, let’s go step by step with a serious, mutually beneficial, upgrade in economic relations. We see progress in this in the draft declaration.”
What the trio countries want is more serious, mutually economically beneficial steps, he added.
Ambassador Chentsov said that the current draft text of the Summit declaration recognises the specific agenda of the Trio countries, and puts emphasis on the green transition and the digital transition. He said that on both close co-operation will be mutually beneficial.
“We need a smart approach, not a free lunch! We need to be treated as a partner with a strong potential to be part of the family”, the Ambassador concluded.
Professor Dr Antoaneta Dimitrova, Professor of Comparative Governance, Leiden University spoke eloquently about the need to keep the issues under discussion understandable and relevant to citizens across the EU and the EaP countries. Professor Dimitrova said that whilst the expert community had become very familiar with terms like ‘resilience’, ‘coherence’, ‘differentiation’, ‘pillars’, and so on, these terms have few meanings for citizens in the Eastern Partnership countries or in the EU countries themselves. The 2016 Consultative Referendum in the Netherlands on the new Association Agreement with Ukraine came as a surprise to everyone except the ones that had initiated it. The Agreement was one of the most complex the EU had ever negotiated. But what Dutch citizens were interested in was more basic – ‘will there be one army? How about corruption in Ukraine? And what will be the impact on Dutch produce even if they have to compete with Ukrainian goods?’
Five years later, we can see that the Association Agreement, together with the political and the geopolitical upheaval that it triggered, has had a substantial impact. It was only on the streets of Kiev that thousands of people demonstrated for an Association Agreement.
Dr Dimitrova said that the agreement really changed the trade orientation of Ukraine, including with the Netherlands. Traditionally Ukraine has been a large exporter of grain with the involvement of large companies involved. However, in 2013-18 new sectors, such as organics products, are now increasingly important, because certification has allowed Ukrainian organic goods to be sold in the EU. The EU has pushed with its support of SMEs which has opened many opportunities for small businesses in the agricultural sector across Ukraine. Of course, some oligarchs are also benefitting from the new trade opportunities, and this cannot be helped, she added.
The Association Agreement has provided a stimulus for reforms. Of course, administrative reforms may be boring, and may not sound particularly urgent, especially if you have a Russian army amassed on your border. However, it is good to note that the European Union has been quite innovative in the way that it has been pushing for administrative reforms by creating a new architecture to enable improvement in administrative reform capacity, including by creating possibilities for highly qualified young people to join reform teams attached to key administrative sectors. There has also been an increase in the process of hiring and firing of key personnel – to the point that you can sometimes even see the job interviews on youtube.
The governance pillar therefore remains just as important today, even in the context of relations with Russia – because reform success in Ukraine can resonate across the region and even in Russia itself.
Dr Dimitrova said that a number of specific targets in the reform process need to be highlighted and sustained: the process of reduction in energy inefficiency is something that resonates with citizens and many thousands have already benefitted from it. The EU needs to communicate better its support for Ukraine’s energy sector, and particularly household needs.
The process of strengthening the rule of law needs to be maintained, and this requires transparency. The ‘declaration of assets’ by officials may seem a mundane and boring task, but it increases trust in government, and that is hugely important. That cannot be achieved without real reforms. Recent research has shown that people are supporting the reforms – from the registration of bases to the declaration of assets – so there is popular support for the reform process.
In conclusion, Dr Dimitrova said that the European Union must be well prepared for changing dynamics in the region.
Concluding the discussion in The Hague on 23 November, Dr Dennis Sammut, Director of LINKS Europe, said that the Eastern Partnership had shown resilience in the face of Russia’s attempts to undermine it in all kinds of different ways. He said it was important to always remember that the Eastern Partnership – regardless of whatever else it was – was also a political project and this needed to be recognised, for it was this political dimension that made the EaP so relevant for the countries of the region, and why the 15 December Brussels summit was so important and timely.
The Eastern Partnership is work in progress
The Eastern Partnership is a long term project that needs also to deliver in the short term. It needs to be looked at as a dynamic political instrument. It is not an end in itself but a process through which the EU can engage with its neighbours to the East that continue to be under intense pressure from Russia. Once the summit is over, and the flags are down and the leaders return home, the work of the EaP must continue but in a renewed and invigorated manner. The challenges are enormous and the efforts to engage with them must be equally ambitious.
source: This analysis was prepared by the research team of commonspace.eu. The Conference "The EU and its Eastern Neighbourhood", organised by LINKS Europe and the City of The Hague was held at The Hague Humanity Hub (city centre) in The Hague on Tuesday, 23 November 2021, in the framework of the Conference on the Future of Europe process.