An official Eastern Partnership (EaP) summit – the first in four years – is scheduled to take place in Brussels on 15 December. The conceptual basis for the summit is a paper on a new direction for the EaP, published by the European Commission and the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy in July 2021.The paper is the result of a multiannual consultation process between the EaP countries (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine) and the EU member states. At the heart of the paper is the concept of resilience, defined as “the capacity of States and societies to reform, to resist and recover from internal and external crises”. With regard to the six partner countries, this gives rise to five long-term objectives for the future EaP: 1) resilient, sustainable and integrated economies; 2) accountable institutions, the rule of law and security; 3) environmental and climate resilience; 4) digital transformation; and 5) fair and inclusive societies.
In addition, the agenda attempts to respond to the call for tangible results for the populations of the partner countries and to avoid jeopardising the still largely positive attitude towards the EU in the EaP countries in the face of ongoing disinformation campaigns from Russia. To that end, the long-term objectives are supplemented by the Top Ten Targets, which are to be achieved by 2025. They include plans to support 500,000 small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), to build or upgrade 3,000 km of priority TEN-T roads and railways in line with EU standards, to ensure that at least 80% of households have access to affordable high-speed internet (with additional plans to reduce retail prices for international roaming in the partner countries by 80%), to address hybrid and cyber threats, and to support 70,000 individual mobility opportunities for students, researchers and young people.
Central pillars: the economy and governance
A central pillar of the new agenda for the EaP is the proposed economic and investment plan, via which the EU would provide € 2.3 billion in funding in the next five years, thereby mobilising up to € 17 billion in additional public and private investment. Country-specific initiatives for each Eastern partner are intended to respond to demands for tailor-made approaches (although the initiative for Belarus is tied to democratic development).
Investment mobilised within the framework of the economic and investment plan will be tied to progress on governance. This second pillar of the new EaP strategy is grounded on reforms in the fields of rule of law, justice and anti-corruption. However, with a few exceptions, such as the planned disclosure of the assets of high-level state officials, the objectives defined for this area are less specific than those pertaining to the economy. Practical experience will show how financial support for economic development will be tied to specific reform steps in the governance sector. The EU member states themselves could also do far more to tackle elite corruption and contribute to “de-oligarchisation” in the partner countries by swiftly and consistently adopting and implementing the European Commission’s anti-money laundering package of July 2021 in order to clamp down more firmly on money-laundering opportunities in their respective national contexts.
No prospect of a substantial upgrading of the security dimension
Almost all the Eastern partners are dealing with some form of conflict. Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine in particular would therefore like to see more solidarity from the EU, as well as more security policy engagement to protect their territorial integrity. This demand is also being voiced in some Western expert circles in relation to the dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh and other conflicts in the region. However, there is currently no prospect of a substantial enhancement of the Eastern Partnership’s security dimension, due to divergent interests within the EU and also among the partner countries themselves. For that reason, plans for closer cooperation within the EaP framework mainly focus on less sensitive areas such as cybersecurity.
The paper also refers to potential support within the framework of the new European Peace Facility (EPF), an off-budget fund for the Common Foreign and Security Policy. The EU member states have been negotiating for several months (and not only since the latest build-up of Russian troops on the border with Ukraine) to mobilise financial support for Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine within the EPF framework. On 2 December, the Council of the European Union approved corresponding measures amounting to around € 51 million over a three-year period. This includes the provision of non-lethal medical and engineering equipment for Georgia and the financing of military medical units, including field hospitals, in Ukraine. At the same time, the EU continues to place emphasis on what it claims to do better than others, namely exercise soft power. Tying in with that, a meeting between the Presidents of Azerbaijan and Armenia is scheduled to take place on the margins of the summit.
Belarus and the Eastern Partnership
Belarus suspended its participation in the Eastern Partnership in August 2021. Representatives of Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s regime will not be attending the summit (and have not been invited). There are firm plans to stage an event with representatives of Belarusian civil society on the margins of the summit. Apart from support for Belarusians in exile, the EU requires well-crafted policies that would enable it to show its support for civil society actors in Belarus while avoiding any cooperation with the Lukashenka regime. However, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who stood in the rigged presidential election in 2020, will not attend the summit itself. While her presence would have sent a clear signal of support for all those within and outside Belarus who are working for the country’s democratic development, it would have amounted to de facto EU recognition of Tsikhanouskaya as the Belarusian head of state. Many member states therefore expressed reservations about this from the outset, grounding their arguments in international law.
Gradual integration into the single market in lieu of the prospect of accession
Since Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine fulfilled the conditions for visa-free travel to the EU, the EU has attracted criticism for not having developed any new incentives to support the reform process. As the prospect of accession is still off the table for these three countries, other options are being considered. The Joint Statement following the recent EU-Ukraine Summit offers a foretaste of what this might look like. Earlier statements spoke of stronger economic and trade relations, to be achieved through effective implementation of the Association Agreement (AA) and its Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA). The latest statement goes further, making the first explicit reference to gradual integration into the single market, a prospect already mentioned in the AA. Does this genuinely mean the creation of a single economic area between the EU and the three associated partners in the long term, based on the single market’s four freedoms? Only time will tell. The question of precisely what this gradual integration would look like and what kind of institutional format it might produce is already a topic of conversation among experts, but more specific discussion will be required at political level if it is to provide a genuine vision for the EaP.