There is no doubt the Visegrad Group is the strongest supporter of the Eastern Partnership. New programme V4EaP is other evidence of this fact. Minister of Foreign Affairs of Slovakia Mikuláš Dzurinda asses in the interview not only activities of the Visegrad group in the frame of the Eastern Partnership but also considers past, present and future of this initiative.
The Eastern Partnership programme has existed more than two years and the assessment of it is rather ambiguous. What is your understanding of this programme? How do you assess its achievements? Where did it fail?
The Eastern Partnership is the key policy EU has in its Eastern Neighborhood. Through the Partnership the EU tries to accelerate the Eastern European countries´ political association and economic integration. When launching this policy two years ago in Prague nobody realistically expected miracles within 1-2 years. This process needs time, certainly a lot of efforts, enthusiasm, political will, financial resources but first of all a clear vision – where we want to go and what we need to do to meet this goal.
I would describe the first year of the Eastern partnership as a year of interpretation of this policy, within the EU, the Eastern partners but also third countries studying with interest and some with concern this new EU policy. The second year I would label as a year of understanding of the offer, exploring its potential, starting mechanisms for its implementation. The recent third year is for me a year of implementation of the Eastern Partnership, in which we will also make its fine-tuning in accordance with a review of the European Neighborhood Policy.
Our assessment? The Eastern Partnership did fairly well, much has been achieved, political and economic reforms have been implemented in partner countries, relations between the EU and partners have deepened, dialogues on visa-free regimes have started, civil society in partner countries is engaged. Could we get more from this programme by today? Probably we could - but the overall situation in the European Union (eurozone crisis) and beyond (economy) is difficult, and therefore we are patient but with no less ambition and no weaker political interest to succeed with this policy.
What I am indeed concerned is democratic regress in some partners, particularly in Belarus. The Eastern Partnership is a policy based on the shared values and principles of democracy, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and the rule of law. We cannot and will not tolerate undemocratic behavior of a partner who wants to sit with us around the table and enjoy benefits the partnership brings. In this context I would like to underline the importance of civil society in the partner countries and our commitment to support all the segments of this democratization changes accelerator.
The Eastern Partnership cannot become some panacea solving various problems involved in the relationship between the EU and the EaP countries but without any doubts it has its own potential. Where do you see main pros and cons of such a kind of the cooperation?
We look at the Eastern Partnership as an umbrella policy of the EU towards the Eastern European countries, which offers enough large and flexible room for discussing and seeking solutions for all possible problems arisen between the EU and the Eastern partner country. It has a strong bilateral track which is quite progressing, reflecting differences among the Eastern partners and individual ambitions. And there is a multilateral track with platforms and flagship initiatives that indeed needs more attention and will for result-oriented co-operation. The Eastern Partnership is sort of pioneer of advanced EU neighbourhood policy. Recent review of the European Neighbourhood Policy confirmed this role of the Eastern Partnership as a model for the Southern neighbourhood.
Slovakia has been since it’s launching a strong supporter of the Eastern Partnership policy. We see many benefits of such a co-operation, both for the EU and the Eastern partners. Co-operation within the Eastern Partnership can significantly contribute to implementation of political and socio-economic reforms in the partner countries, it facilitates approximation towards the European Union and thus integration into one larger common space. All this enhances stability, security and prosperity of the European Union, the partner countries and the entire European continent. The Eastern Partnership also promotes stability and multilateral confidence and seeks to develop closer ties among the partner countries themselves. So in short, the Eastern partners make reforms for their own benefit and well being of their people, with a key positive effect on the whole EU neighbouring partners. This is behind the concept of shared ownership and mutual accountability.
Our active approach to the EaP is based also on our common border with the largest and most important Eastern partner - Ukraine and our transformation, transition and integration experiences - the main value added of Slovakia to the EaP - which are very attractive and inspiring for many of the partners. Some of our lessons are also valid for the countries of North Africa and the Middle East to address their democratic aspirations. Last year we launched National Conventions for European Integration in Moldova and Ukraine and the Centre of Transfer of the Slovak Experiences from the Accession Process at my Ministry of Foreign Affaires in Bratislava. The future of the EaP was also discussed at the V4 ministerial meeting with all Eastern partners, German minister G. Westerwelle, High Representative C. Ashton and Commissioner Š. Fule organised by the Slovak V4 Presidency in Bratislava in March this year.
I see none negative aspects of such partnership. What I see, and already mentioned, is my concern that basic principle of democracy of our partnership is not respected fully by some partner countries. We have to address this problem, otherwise it can rotten all our efforts, and spoil the results we already have reached. We have learned from our own experience how difficult it is to establish a genuine democracy. Slovakia was once called "the black hole of Europe" due to the democratic deficit in the policies of its then leaders. We know the price of democracy and its irreplaceable role in the transformation of our society.
The Eastern Partnership addresses countries in so-called “near abroad” of Russia and Moscow does not have too big understanding for such an activity. Where do you see main reasons for Russian rather suspicious attitude to the Eastern Partnership?
I have to say that I do not understand well what the reasons were for Russian, as you say, rather suspicious attitude or opposition to the Eastern Partnership before and after its launching. I am not concerned at all by Russian scepticism about the success of the EaP but I do want to reject all possible perceptions that the Eastern Partnership is breeding some anti-Russian attitudes. The Eastern Partnership is first of all a policy promoting values and principles that we hope Russia shares too. Actually, I can see a lot of synergy between the Eastern Partnership and the Partnership for Modernisation with Russia. Both policies lead to stabilization of Eastern European neighbourhood of the EU, having strong modernization agenda aimed at advancing economic cooperation and fostering people-to-people contacts. Both have the key objective to integrate the post-soviet Eastern Europe and Russia.
I see many reasons why Russia should actively explore possibilities to participate in specific Eastern Partnership projects of transborder nature on a case-by-case basis and contribute to their implementation. On the other hand I expect that Russia will respect the Eastern partners´ interest to fully use the potential of the political association and economic integration with the EU. There are some positive signs of new pragmatic Russian attitude towards the Eastern Partnership. Russia has become an observer of established informal Information and Coordination Group for third countries interested in the Eastern Partnership and this leads me to conclusion that Moscow now assesses the EaP more positively. The EU and Russia can contribute decisively also to the resolution of the protracted conflicts within their common neighborhood. We have a good chance to exploit a huge potential of this region and transform it to the zone of peace, democracy, stability and prosperity.
During Slovak presidency of the Visegrad Group the programme V4EaP was prepared and it will be launch from the beginning of year 2012. What with this programme can enrich the Eastern Partnership?
The main task of the programme V4EaP is an active involvement of the International Visegrad Fund (IVF) into our Eastern partnership activities and policies. Using standard tools and additional financial capacity the IVF will start with flagship projects aimed at the promotion of our Democratisation and Transformation experience, development of the regional cooperation and support of civil society.
I hope that our partners can see the benefits and importance of the enhanced regional cooperation through the implementation of this program. The Visegrad group represents an added value in itself and now is actively promoting its regional experience and European values further to the East. We are aware of our responsibility for the development in the neighboring regions. The 20 years of the Visegrad Four activity and results achieved can show to our Eastern friends an inspiring way how to tackle mutual regional challenges in the most effective way, save resources and enhance mutual trust.
The Polish presidency of the EU is taken like an opportunity to push the Eastern Partnership forward. Where would you like to see the Eastern Partnership at the end of the Polish presidency and several years after?
I agree, we have many expectations from the Polish EU Presidency as regards the Eastern Partnership. And I am absolutely confident that the Partnership, with the summit to be held in Warsaw at the end of September, is high on the agenda of my colleague Radek Sikorski.
At the summit we want to send a clear message to our Eastern partners – that respect for shared values and principles is a key condition to strengthen relations with the EU in any areas of cooperation. We also want to assure our Eastern partners on our long-term commitment to gradually integrate them into EU. And demonstrate to our population and partner countries that the Eastern Partnership is a valuable policy and format for cooperation. We want to have more differentiation among the Eastern partners reflecting „more for more“ policy, including resources distribution. We also hope that new areas of sectoral cooperation with the Eastern partners will be identified and developed – here the Polish Presidency has very ambitious plan, which we fully support.
The implementation of the Eastern Partnership is a hard work. Lot of efforts, reforms, political will and resources are needed. But its result is beneficiary for the people of the Eastern partner first of all. We expect that in coming years negotiations on Association Agreements and DCFTA agreements will be concluded and that Visa Dialogue and Visa Facilitation Agreements will be in place leading to full visa free regimes with the Eastern partners. And we also want to have within the EU a serious discussion on giving the European perspective to those Eastern partners that fulfil the necessary criteria. History proves that the EU perspective is a strong incentive for reforms and a strong stabilizing factor in the neighbourhood. We have our own integration success story and we are confident that the Eastern Partnership can turn into similar success story as well.
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