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Lessons from the Eastern Partnership: Looking back to move forward

Eastern Partnership / COMMENTARY
Amanda Paul , Ionela Ciolan

Date: 14/12/2021
The Eastern Partnership region has become a geopolitical battlefield, where the EU’s normative agenda clashes with Russia’s great power politics and China’s geoeconomics. Its future will depend on the EU’s readiness to play hardball and adopt a clear vision and strategy based on the realities on the ground.

A decade of mismatched results

Launched in 2009, the Eastern Partnership (EaP) policy aims to deepen relations between the EU and its six Eastern European neighbours – Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine – and deliver stability, security and prosperity to the Eastern Neighbourhood. Since then, its approach has evolved from one-size-fits-all to bilateral, tailor-made and more-for-more.

Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia aspire to become EU members and have the most ambitious bilateral Association Agreements (AA) and Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Areas. The agreements provide a framework for enhanced political collaboration and economic integration. The three countries have also formed the Associated Trio platform to reinforce their EU membership ambitions, develop joint initiatives on issues of European integration, and boost political dialogue and sectoral cooperation.

The other three countries are on different paths. In 2013, Russian pressure prevented Armenia from signing an AA. Subsequently shoehorned into joining the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union, Yerevan is currently implementing a custom-made Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement with the EU to reduce its heavy economic dependence on Moscow. Azerbaijan is pursuing a multi-vector foreign policy strategy and negotiating a new strategic agreement with the Union. EU–Belarus relations have been frozen since President Lukashenko violently suppressed peaceful protests against the fraudulent August 2020 election.

Instability over stability?

More than a decade later, the EaP’s objectives remain unfulfilled. The region has become a space where EU norms and values collide with Russian realpolitik and pushback against what it considers an encroachment on its traditional sphere of influence. Furthermore, many experts question the EaP’s effectiveness given the region’s uptick in political, economic and security instability, sluggish reform efforts and democratic backsliding. Even in the most advanced three associated countries, reform implementation in the sectors of anti-corruption, judicial independence and the rule of law is challenging.

Domestic dynamics remain problematic. For example, irregularities in Chișinău’s 2018 mayoral election, a failure to properly investigate the 2014 bank fraud and inadequate judicial reform led to the EU temporarily freezing Moldovan access to EU micro-financial assistance and other financial support programmes in 2018.

In Ukraine, two decades of inefficient and corrupt public administration and the relentless influence of oligarchs and other vested interests in policymaking has hampered reform. Anti-corruption measures, including establishing an anti-corruption court, have proved challenging. Finally, democratic backtracking, political crises and polarisation (exacerbated by Russian interference) have plagued Georgia, the EU’s previous poster child for reform, since 2019.

EU inertia settling in

While many of these problems are homegrown, growing inertia in the EU towards the region also plays a role. The reasons are threefold.

The erosion of EU soft power is a combination of the internal struggles that the EU has endured over the past years, from Brexit and the rise of extremism, illiberalism and populism to migration crises. Highly effective Russian anti-EU propaganda and misinformation slow EU reactions towards regional crises, like Lukashenko’s brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protests.

Second, the emergence of other actors, particularly China, has helped erode EU leverage and conditionality. This has led to the EaP countries employing multi-vector foreign policy strategies and cherry-picking from the list of EU-demanded reforms (e.g. economic and financial reforms over judicial, rule-of-law and anti-corruption reforms).

Third, the lack of local ownership is a further obstacle to implementing reforms. By supporting demand-driven policy changes, the EU tries to empower the EaP states and societies to lead their reform agendas. Yet a combination of unreformed administrations, local elites’ resistance to change, endemic corruption practices, and pro-status quo or pro-Russian decision-makers slow pro-European initiatives. Even parts of society and elites in the Associated Trio states are highly conservative and against adopting EU values and norms (e.g. protecting minority rights).

The other issues occupying the EU’s long foreign policy agenda not only add to the inertia but also risks ousting the Eastern Neighbourhood from its priority list. This is a consequence of the diverging priority regions among the EU27. While the Central and Eastern European countries (i.e. Baltics, Poland, Romania) prioritise the Associated Trio, the Mediterranean members have always focused more on the Southern Neighbourhood.

Geopolitics matter

The EaP’s security dimension is fragile. Hence, the ‘good neighbourliness’ principle of peaceful and stable countries has not materialised around the EU. Rather, the security environment has deteriorated, with a geopolitical tug of war taking place.

An increasingly assertive Russia is pushing back against EU (and NATO) engagement. Following the 2014 annexation and occupation of Crimea and the Donbas war, Russia expanded its military footprint and changed the regional security context. This includes an enhanced military presence on the Black Sea, the Sea of Azov and, more recently, Belarus. The EU failed to not only respond to these challenges sufficiently but also tackle multiple hybrid threats adequately: widespread disinformation and the weaponisation of energy, migrants and coronavirus vaccines.

The region’s protracted conflicts and non-recognised entities also impede its stability. Russian troops are involved – directly or indirectly – in all the conflicts, while Moscow is also the key actor in various conflict resolution processes. The EU was a bystander in the Nagorno-Karabakh war, while Russia brokered the ceasefire, put boots on the ground and now plays a central role in peace talks. Taken together, these conflicts allow Moscow to project power across not only the region but also the Balkans, Mediterranean and Middle East.

Enter China

Although the EU remains the EaP states’ main strategic economic partner, China is working to increase its stake in the region. Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative has expanded its influence and activities in the EaP countries. Prone to political instability and facing poor governance and weak economies dependent on external aid, the EaP is fertile terrain for Chinese geoeconomics.

Georgia signed a free trade agreement with China in 2018, and Ukraine and Moldova are negotiating trade accords. As of 2020, China became Georgia’s top trading partner in exports, accounting for over 14% of total exports. China launched its first foreign aid energy project in Moldova to build its largest solar power station. China is also building a $2 billion metro line in Kyiv. Investing in transport, river and maritime infrastructure is central to Beijing’s strategy of increasing its connectivity with Europe.

China uses both soft and hard power tools to influence global affairs. In the EaP region, Beijing focuses on not interfering in internal affairs and maintaining neutral positions and a low political profile. Contrary to the Western model of linking financial aid to conditionality and reform, Chinese investments and grants seemingly come with no strings attached. Beijing mostly plays under the radar and yet employs an assertive foreign policy ‘when necessary’. For example, China threatened to withhold COVID-19 vaccine shipments to Ukraine if Kyiv did not retract its support for a UN investigation into Uyghur human rights violations.

What’s missing from the EaP?

While the EaP region is a top priority for Moscow, the same cannot be said for the EU. A shift from a normative to a geopolitical actor, as envisioned by the von der Leyen Commission, still needs to happen. The EU does not have a clear strategic vision for the region. Given that what happens in the neighbourhood has a nasty habit of spilling into the EU – case in point, the Polish-Belarus border crisis –, it is in the EU’s interest to strengthen its efforts to help the EaP states reinforce their resilience to both internal and external threats.

At the Eastern Partnership summit on 15 December, the EU should learn the lessons from the last decade and aim its political ambitions for the region higher. The summit declaration should result in the following:

  • A soft security pillar. The EU can help partner countries foster a more stable security environment by increasing cooperation, resilience and reforms for hybrid threats, border protection, cybersecurity and climate change-related security risks. It should also bolster its involvement in the protracted conflicts by providing further assistance for conflict mediation and settlement and crisis management. In its future Strategic Compass, the EU should stress the importance of stabilising the Eastern Neighbourhood and initiate a security and defence dialogue with the EaP states.
  • A two-speed Eastern Partnership. By accepting and translating into policy the partner states’ level of ambition, Brussels can further advance the integration processes with the Associated Trio while avoiding disenfranchising the other EaP states. Furthermore, strengthening bilateral tracks does not conflict with the multilateral track, which is also important for cooperating on common challenges.
  • The EU’s improved strategic communication. The EaP’s success (or failure) cannot be measured if its results are unknown. The EU should improve its communication of EaP achievements and benefits to partner countries.
  • Enhanced resilience against disinformation and misinformation. Brussels should increase the training of EaP public administrations, civil society and journalists to counter online disinformation campaigns and help partner states create resilient strategies for combating misinformation and fake news.

As the EaP becomes a crossroad of geopolitical and geoeconomic competition, the EU will only be relevant if it finds the political will to implement a long-term strategy towards the region. Both Russia and China know exactly what they want from the EaP. It is time for Brussels to decide what type of actor it wants to be in the Eastern Neighbourhood.

Ionela Maria Ciolan is a Research Fellow in the Europe in the World programme at the European Policy Centre.

Amanda Paul is a Senior Policy Analyst in the Europe in the World programme at the European Policy Centre.

The support the European Policy Centre receives for its ongoing operations, or specifically for its publications, does not constitute an endorsement of their contents, which reflect the views of the authors only. Supporters and partners cannot be held responsible for any use that may be made of the information contained therein.

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