No fuss, no glory

ZOiS Spotlight 33/2017 by Julia Langbein (29 November 2017)

European Council president Donald Tusk at the summit's final press conference. © European Union

To support domestic reform in its Eastern partners, the EU has defined four priority areas for cooperation: economic development and market opportunities, institutions and good governance, connectivity, and people-to-people contacts. At their Brussels summit on 24 November, the EU and the members of the Eastern Partnership agreed on 20 concrete deliverables by 2020. These include easier access to financing for more small and medium-sized companies, harmonised roaming prices, the establishment of high-level anticorruption bodies, and the extension of the TEN-T transport investment plan.

These deliverables can serve as a useful road map for EU bodies and actors in the partner countries. They could also produce tangible results for citizens in the partner states and thus help maintain their support for many other costly reforms related to European integration that are unlikely to pay off in the short term. Notably, the deliverables put a welcome emphasis on public administration reform. The implementation of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement has shown that most of the EU’s technical and financial assistance projects have suffered from weak absorption capacity on the part of the state institutions.[1] The lack of merit-based recruitment and adequate salaries for civil servants is a major impediment to the implementation of reforms needed to reap the benefits of access to the EU market.

No tough stance on Russia

The language in the Brussels summit declaration relating to the situation in eastern Ukraine was watered down in comparison with previous summit conclusions. It simply called for ‘renewed efforts to promote the peaceful settlement of conflicts in the region’. This wording mirrors the internal division among EU member states when it comes to the union’s policy towards Russia. While some EU member states prefer a pragmatic approach—not least due to business interests, for example related to the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline—others would have preferred a firmer stance against Russia. At the summit’s final press conference, however, European Council president Donald Tusk condemned Russia’s aggression and the illegal annexation of Crimea but also noted that the summit’s declaration was a compromise based on the desire to demonstrate unity.

An enhanced partnership with Armenia 

One result of the Brussels summit that was not entirely predictable concerned the signature of the Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement (CEPA) between the EU and Armenia. Only a few days before the Brussels summit, Edward Nalbandian, Armenia’s foreign minister, met his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, in Moscow. Would Russia try to block the signature of CEPA at the last minute by exerting leverage on the Armenian government, as it did with the EU-Armenia Association Agreement before the 2013 Vilnius summit? In fact, Russia became more relaxed about EU-Armenian relations after Yerevan joined the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), and Moscow left the Armenian negotiators lots of room for manoeuvre during the CEPA negotiations. [2]  

The signature of CEPA does not only indicate the EU’s increased ability to differentiate between partners, as laid down in the European Neighbourhood Policy review of 2015. The conclusion of CEPA also underlines Yerevan’s willingness to take on as many commitments as its parallel membership in the EEU allows. Whether a CEPA-like agreement could become a viable alternative for Belarus and Azerbaijan as well remains to be seen. So far, the summit has not produced tangible results for these two Eastern partners.

No membership perspective for three Eastern partners

Once again, the EU did not offer a membership perspective to the three associated countries: Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine. Despite comprehensive lobbying efforts by the governments of these three Eastern partners, the EU refrained from upgrading its relations with them. The wording of the summit’s joint declaration mainly repeated previous language, acknowledging the partners’ European aspirations and European choice.

Worse, there was no reference in the Brussels summit declaration to the EU’s association agreements. Such a mention would have suggested that the associated countries could theoretically meet the conditions for EU membership as prescribed in Article 49 of the Treaty on European Union. This omission must be interpreted as a concession to the Netherlands following the Dutch referendum on the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement on 6 April 2016. Yet The Hague is not alone in its position. Except for Sweden, the Baltic states, and the Visegrád Four of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia, other EU member states are equally critical or at least passive.

A bolder EU, a more credible Eastern Partnership

Doubts arise as to whether EU membership is the appropriate tool to induce much-needed domestic reforms in the three associated partners. Such a perspective may send the wrong signal to both elites and citizens in the countries. The ruling elites in Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine have not even implemented all of what they have already agreed with the EU, as recent examples illustrate: Ukraine has postponed the establishment of an anticorruption court. The Moldovan government has halted a much-needed judicial reform. And the Georgian government has deferred reform of the electoral system.

Rather than offer a membership perspective to such elites, the EU should apply negative conditionality and withhold budgetary support to the respective governments if needed, as recently happened in the case of Moldova. Not doing so damages the EU’s image among citizens in the partner countries who find the EU too supportive of corrupt domestic elites. When the European Commission released the second tranche of its macrofinancial assistance to Ukraine in 2017 despite Kyiv’s violations of certain agreements with the EU, Ukrainian observers noted that the EU’s policy harmed their country’s development.

The quest for a membership perspective is older than the Eastern Partnership. But why would ruling elites need a membership perspective to push through reforms if they were as committed to European integration as they pretend to be? Instead, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine should use the EU’s financial and technical support and behave as if they already enjoyed EU candidate status. That would be a better strategy for convincing sceptical EU member states and publics than to continue with the current sluggish reform process.


[1] Wolczuk, K., Delcour, L., Dragneva, R., Maniokas, K. and Zeruolis, D. (2017), ‘The Association Agreements as a Dynamic Framework: Between Modernization and Integration’, EU-STRAT Working Paper No. 06, ‘The EU and Eastern Partnership Countries – An Inside-Out Analysis and Strategic Assessment’ (EU-STRAT).

[2] Dragneva, R., Delcour, L. and Jonavicius, L. (2017), ‘Assessing Legal and Political Compatibility between the European Union Engagement Strategies and Membership of the Eurasian Economic Union’, EU-STRAT Working Paper No. 07, November 2017, ‘The EU and Eastern Partnership Countries – An Inside-Out Analysis and Strategic Assessment’ (EU-STRAT).


Dr. Julia Langbein is Senior Research Fellow at the Center for European Integration and Scientific Coordinator of the research project EU-STRAT at the Freie Universität Berlin.