|Author: Pavel Havlicek|
10 YEARS OF THE EASTERN PARTNERSHIP: FROM PRAGUE TO BRUSSELS AND WHERE TO GO NEXT?
In 2019, the Eastern Partnership (EaP) celebrated its 10th birthday during the sixth EaP high-level meeting in Brussels, and the time has come to reflect on its past, present and future developments. If the past 10 years can be generally assessed as a success, this trend must be maintained in the upcoming decade. To this end, it will be necessary to come up with a new agenda for relations between the EU and the Eastern partner countries and to keep the EU’s eastern policy high on the European agenda. It is right here where the EaP supporters, such as Poland and Sweden, and more recently again also Czechia, can bring their own added value. The challenge will be to build a credible coalition of forces that will first ensure the future development of the Eastern Partnership in the next 10 years, and second bring relations with Eastern European countries to a higher level, thus meeting the expectations of the partner countries.
The most recent EaP conference was held in Brussels on 13 and 14 May 2019, with the participation of EU heads of state and/or foreign ministers, EaP representatives as well as the European institutions. This time, the session was held in the spirit of the celebrations of the 10th anniversary of the launch of policy in Prague in May 2009, as well as a review of the past, present and future of the EU’s eastern policy. The common denominator of the meeting was to evaluate the past 10 years of EaP as a success, but this – as the Commissioner for European Neighborhood Policy and Enlargement Johannes Hahn added – needs to be sustained in the upcoming decade.
Positive outcomes and concrete achievements of the Eastern Partnership were recalled during the conference, and new measures proposed by the Polish Foreign Minister Czaputowicz to further strengthen the policy after 2020. In addition to the constructive approach, the conference also noted tensions between the EU and some EaP countries. The sixth summit of the European institutions, EU heads and EaP countries sufficiently illustrated the current state of play of the policy ten years after when its final declaration was not signed due to mutual disagreements. So where do we stand today and in what direction will the Eastern Partnership develop in the future? These and other questions will be elaborated in this article.
Today, the European Union's Eastern policy could be characterized as a dynamically developing multilateral platform for relations with the six partner countries, offering each of the Eastern partners an opportunity to strengthen bilateral relations with the EU. The three associated countries have signed their association agreements with the EU (resp. the DCFTA as a part of it) and a visa-free regime for short-term visits. At the same time, according to the outgoing Ukrainian President Petr Poroshenko, Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova have higher ambitions to further integrate into the EU structures in the form of the so-called “Four Unions” (digital, energy, Schengen and customs) and promote the Eastern Partnership+ model. However, the plan is confronted not only with problems in the associated countries themselves (e.g. corruption, oligarchization of the public space, braindrain or security situation), but also with the limits within the EU itself and its reluctance to allow further rapprochement, demanded by certain EU member states.
In addition to EU’s associated countries, Armenia, which last year saw a democratic (and Velvet!) transition of power to opposition leader Nikola Pashinyan, concluded its own CEPA agreement with the EU. For now, the agreement seems to be compatible with Armenia’s membership of the Eurasian Economic Union led by Russia. Thus, although Armenia is not at the same level as the three associated states, its ambition to modernize and strengthen its relations with the EU at the expense of Russia's dependence is more than evident. Another interesting case is Belarus, which, after many years of controversy and sanctions by the EU against Lukashenko's authoritarian regime, opens its arms to the West in an attempt to (again!) balance its powerful and assertive eastern neighbor and attract the Western investment into the slowly dying Belarusian economy. At the Brussels conference, this was well reflected by the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Makei, who mentioned the interest of his country in stronger cooperation with the EBRD and EIB, but also his willingness to continue dialogue on humanitarian issues, including human rights and the death penalty. At the same time, Makei said that Belarus suffered the most because of the confrontation between the West and Russia. Today, the EU is negotiating not only economic assistance and investment plan with Belarus, but also policy priorities, visa facilitation or facilitating the people-to-people contacts. Last but not least, the Eastern Partnership policy includes Azerbaijan, with whom the EU also has long-term complicated relations due to its repressive regime and oppression of the civil society and virtually any opposition to President Aliev's ruling regime. However, in this case too, the EU is looking for ways to engage in dialogue with Azerbaijan and even negotiate a more ambitious treaty in mutual relations, including, inter alia, the issue of energy and transport in a geopolitically difficult region.
Thus, bilateral relations with the Eastern partners clearly show the EU's new pragmatism, which is based on the EU's global strategy in foreign and security policy, and the interest in negotiating a positive agenda and concrete results for EaP citizens to achieve more stability, prosperity and security in the Eastern neighbourhood. At the same time, the different ambitions of the partner countries reinforce the 'more for more' (and 'less for less') principle that the EU started to apply after 2011 in connection with the implementation of the mutual commitments.
This year's relaunched multilateral dimension of EU-EaP relations was well characterized by Ukrainian Vice-Prime Minister for European Integration Ivanna Klimpush-Tsintsadze who stated that the Eastern Partnership is for (and not only) her country a multilateral platform for achieving bilateral goals. In spite of the EU vision of building stronger cooperation and trust between partner countries, the EaP countries have always sought to build their own bilateral relations with the Union first. This discrepancy has been maintained throughout the 10 years and can be expected to persist in the next decade too. However, it is clear that the multilateral framework of cooperation values most of the participants that largely benefit from the work of the working groups, platforms and expert panels. Cooperation in the four priority areas (democracy and good governance, economy, interconnection and transport as well as people-to-people contacts) has been adopted by some EU Member States (including Czechia in cooperation with local governments or Estonia and its digitization), which actively benefit from it and the transfer of European know-how.
There is, of course, the symbolic dimension of building trust and strenthening contacts between the EaP countries for whom the common multilateral meetings and sitting around one table were certainly not always self-evident. In addition, contrary to the original expectations of the EU that Ukraine could become a leader and driving force among the EaP countries, this vision has never really materialised and Ukraine has always used its role as a common Eastern Partnership voice for its own benefit only. For this reason, there is a considerable scope for improving and streamlining the multilateral dimension of relations, exchanging experience on the implementation of the Association Agenda or the challenges of cooperation with the EU (and, indeed, Russia). Compared to the bilateral level, the multilateral dimension of relations with the EU has thus far lagged behind in the last decade and will need to be boosted and developed in the future.
An important milestone for the Eastern Partnership will be the year of 2020, when the implementation phase of the 20 reform points for 2020 will come to an end. In addition, by 2020, many points from the associated agreements as well as the bilateral agenda will have to be delivered by both the EU and EaP countries. This is particularly true in case of Ukraine, but to a lesser extent also Georgia and Moldova. This means that after 2020 there will be a need for a new set of interactions.
However, it is widely known that the idea of ever-expanding and deeper integration of Eastern European countries into the EU is not very popular, especially among the old EU Member States. This implies that if we do not want to have the Partnership forgotten in oblivion, it is necessary to come up with a new momentum and a new set of 20 points that will further advance the mutual relations. One of the ways has been pushed by the European Parliament in its Eastern Partnership+ initiative that could address particularly the ambitions of Associated Countries and motivate them to move closer to the EU. Also, the Four Unions concept offers an interesting way forward, especially in the context of the European Economic Area and putting the mutual relationship at the same level. While all of these initiatives are open for discussion, political will and leadership in the international arena is necessary to create a new strategic vision for the Eastern Neighbourhood. On a more practical level, there are opportunities to cooperate in the field of youth and interpersonal (or cross-border) contacts, education and academic exchanges, strategic communication and fighting hybrid threats, etc. that are less politically sensitive. Now, it is crucial to well-receive and understand the concerns of Eastern partners themselves, who face aggressive Russian behaviour and problems of societal resilience that they prioritise. At the same time, the EaP countries are likely to witness a continuation of compromise rhetoric on the membership perspective that nevertheless needs to stay on the table if the EU is to keep its foreign policy credibility in the eyes of its partners as well as competitors.
In the context of setting a new strategic assignment for the Eastern Partnership, the recent Polish proposals for triple strengthening of relations with the Eastern partners in the institutional, sectoral and legal (acquis) sphere, could be taken as a source of inspiration. The Polish Foreign Minister Czaputowicz outlined the possibility of establishing a permanent Eastern Partnership Secretariat to negotiate with European partners and take over the representation of Eastern European countries in Brussels. In addition, Czaputowicz proposed ad hoc involvement of associated countries in sectoral meetings and establishment of the EaP Presidency as well as a free trade zone in the Eastern Neighborhood, modeled on CEFTA in Central Europe. As a fourth possible contribution to cooperation between the EU and the EaP countries, Czaputowicz mentioned solidarity and high-level political support of the Eastern partners in context of Russia's aggressive activities in Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova and the pressure on others. In this context, it will be particularly interesting to observe the Russian activities in Moldova, which is currently undergoing a painful political transformation of power into the hands of a pro-European ACUM supported by President Dodon's pro-European socialists.
The Polish proposals can be complemented by several interesting ideas from the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum, which – for example – refer to the gradual ending of the asymmetric position between the EU and EaP countries, resp. the principle of conditionality. Stronger ownership of policy by Eastern European countries and enforced role of civil society in the process of implementing the Association Agenda, resp. deciding on whether the post-2020 20 points are ambitious and measurable enough for achieving the desired goals. Most importantly, the financial instruments operating in the EaP region today will play an important role in improving the region’s ecnomic visbility. Therefore, they should stay in the current form, or better be further expanded in thr period after 2020.
The Czech diplomacy under the Foreign Minister Tomas Petricek rightly puts emphasis on the issues of good governance, rule of law or the civil society in the EaP countries and does not shy away from criticising the Eastern partners when constructive and useful for the benefit of the EaP societies. In this sense, Czechia is building on its good reputation in the region and solid position vis-a-vis the Eastern partners. The Czech diplomacy today plays together with Poles and Swedes an important role of an advocate of the legitimate interests of the Eastern Partnership as well as bridge- and coalition-builder in the EU decision-making process. In this effort, the Czech foreign policy comes up with its own vision and initiatives for the future of EaP beyond 2020.
In this regard, the Czech diplomacy returns to its roots during 2008-9 when it played an instrumental role in launching the Eastern Partnership at the Prague Summit in May 2009. At the time of the transition of power in Brussels, this is even more important to shape the EU portfolio and make sure that the Eastern Partnership stays at the top agenda for the EU Commission after 2020. For this cause, Czechia can make use of its V4 presidency during 2019/20 and, for example, mediate the conflict in relations between Ukraine and Hungary, in order to rehabilitate the V4 reputation in the Eastern Neighbourhood, and most importantly restore the Eur-Atlantic course of Ukraine and other EaP countries. Providing its know-how of political, economic and societal transformstion in the East as well as strategic communication and fight against hybrid threats is also of great importance. Last but not least, Czechia could play an important role in reforming the constitutional courts in Moldova, Armenia or Ukraine that are currently on the way, making use of its presidency in the Conference of European Constitutional Courts headed by Pavel Rychetsky. New achievements in the Eastern Neighbourhood can only benefit the Czech national interests, but also the EU as a whole, when working with more stable, secure and prosperous Eastern partners.