Seven challenges to the Eastern Partnership

Five years after its launch, the Eastern Partnership (EaP) has seen both achievements and serious challenges. This paper touches upon the main challenges to the EaP, without the pretense of providing an exhaustive overview.

The most acute challenge to the success of the EaP is the one presented by Russia, which choses to view the EU’s policy towards the shared neighbourhood as a zero-sum game for geopolitical dominance. Russia’s punitive measures in response to EaP states’ aspirations to associate more closely with the EU and Moscow’s coercive counter-offer to join the Eurasian Economic Union are cases in point. It is hard to predict how far Russia will c.q. can go. Recently, it has been blowing hot and cold, with an initiative of the Duma to organise an international conference at the end of November to discuss ways how to overcome the “crisis of confidence in Europe”, while the Kremlin “respects” the outcome of the recent elections in the separatist-held areas in the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts and reinvigorates its support of the rebels militarily.

The Russian pressure has played out as follows vis-à-vis the three EaP states that have made advances on their integration track with the EU by concluding an Association Agreement (AA), which includes a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA):

  • Ukraine: occupation and annexation of Crimea; the creation of de facto state in the form of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics; a gas embargo until a new price was agreed (ad interim); trade sanctions;
  • Moldova: Russia has blocked entry for about 20,000 Moldovan workers and Moscow has several times threatened to deport the rest, which would be a huge blow to the Moldovan economy as remittances from these migrant workers constitute up to a fifth of the annual GDP. Import bans on a host of food products and EU measures adopted to offset the impact of some of these Russian sanctions have resulted in trade diversion towards the EU and a 3.9% growth of the Moldovan economy. As a sole provider of gas, Russia could incur great damage by cutting supplies in the middle of a cold winter;
  • Georgia: attempts at revising the Russo-Abkhaz treaty of alliance is further threatening Georgian territorial integrity and undermining efforts of Georgia’s ruling coalition to build more cordial and cooperative relations with the Russian Federation.

The EU is right in keeping up its sanctions policy in reaction to a continuation of Russian violations of international law by waging war in Ukraine. The Union could upgrade its 'level-3' sanctions if Russia causes more havoc in the neighbourhood it shares with the EU.

Seven key structural challenges to the EaP can be identified.

As said, other challenges exist, such as the need to strengthen the involvement of citizens and civil society organisations in the definition and implementation of  the EaP, but these will remain outside the scope of the current paper.

1) How can the EaP take account of the ties between the EaP countries and Russia and the interests of Moscow?

The EaP has been defined in too Eurocentric a way, insufficiently taking account of the interests of the neighbours of the EU’s neighbours. The question is whether Russia (and others) should be given a direct say in the definition of the EaP. Is there any future for the trilaterals?

  • The success of Commissioner Oettinger’s trialogue to resolve, at least ad interim, the gas pricing dispute between Ukraine and Russia offers a successful example;
  • The trialogue over the alleged negative economic fall-out of the EU-Ukraine DCFTA on Russia has failed, in the sense that (i) the Kremlin got what it asked for when Yanukovych pulled the plug on Association Agreement negotiations ahead of the Vilnius summit, even if Moscow's offer of a trialogue was vehemently rejected by the EU back then; (ii) the Kremlin used its influence to delay the implementation of the core part of the AA (i.e. the DCFTA) until 1 January 2016; and (iii) the Kremlin immediately insisted on more “systemic adjustments”, i.e. permanent carve-outs of the AA/DCFTA. The latter shows that Russia’s concerns are not limited to mere technical trade issues and are in fact intended to slow down and even reverse Ukraine’s closer association and integration with the EU;
  • Similar trade trilaterals for Moldova and Georgia are unlikely to mature: the Russian economy does not depend on trade with either country in any meaningful way. Moldova and Georgia’s share of 0.1% in all of Russia’s imports cannot explain the Kremlin’s high interest in these countries' DCFTAs with the EU. However, Moldova’s heavy reliance on Russian gas imports could trigger a trilateral negotiation with the EU if Moscow turns the tap on the country.

How can the EU redefine its policy towards the eastern neighbours to face up to the challenge posed by Russia? Cynics would say that it is too late already: Moscow has achieved what it wanted by military force (‘green men’) and ongoing occupation by its so-called ‘peace-keepers’. Separatist conflicts (frozen, simmering or boiling) give Russia geopolitical assets to drive wedges between five EaP countries and the EU. Belarus is entirely in Moscow’s pocket, even if its dictator insists on his country’s foreign policy independence. 

Given Russia’s negative inclination to the EaP, the EU needs to coordinate its policy towards its Eastern partners with that towards Russia. These two sets of policies have to be correlated. This requires that: (i) the EU formulates a new strategy towards Russia; (ii) EU-Russia strategic summit meetings are at one point re-instated and provided with real content; (iii) greater regulatory convergence is ensured between the AA/DCFTAs and Eurasian Economic Union regulations.

2) The EaP is designed for long-term effects but is not useful for the short-term crisis management. How should it deal with the lack of a hard security dimension?

As former Commissioner for External Relations Ferrero-Waldner has evoked on a number occasions in the start-up phase of the ENP: “the European Neighbourhood Policy is not in itself a conflict prevention or settlement mechanism”. However, the EU will have to apply its December 2013 Comprehensive Approach to security and development to the ENP/EaP. The ENP’s toolkit need to be enhanced to make sure that it lives up to its Article 8 TEU obligation to work towards the transformation of the neighbourhood into a zone of peace and prosperity by: (i) including EaP managers in crisis platform meetings; (ii) linking up the EU’s crisis management bodies with the geographical divisions of the EEAS; and (iii) ensuring stronger EU coordination with NATO on neighbourhood issues. Strong political backing by the member states is the most crucial ingredient in this mix.

3) How to ensure proper implementation of the DCFTA?

  • The EaP does not take the specificities of domestic structures of partner countries enough into consideration. Here too, the DCFTAs suffers from too Eurocentric an approach. 
  • It is doubtful that the EaP countries will be able and/or willing to implement the DCFTAs fully. Hence, more EU attention is needed in cases when the partners say they are reforming (e.g. adopting new laws) but not implementing. The EU should fight fake compliance by insisting on a track record of implementation before mobilising new funds and technical assistance. One could think about the application of a more bench-marked conditionality system similar to that used in the enlargement context. 
  • The perceived lack of financial support has been a challenge to help implement the EaP-required reforms in the past. Bigger envelopes under the new Multi-annual Financial Framework 2014-2020 should be welcomed but are arguably still insufficient to tackle the structural problems with which EaP countries are grappling.

4) How to improve the merit-based approach for frontrunners?

  • The visa-liberalisation process is highly differentiated, duly benchmarked and monitored. It is a functional tool for reform and modernization and accepted by all EaP countries. It could serve as a model for other areas.
  • With regard to the DCFTAs, a two-tier system is crystallizing, with Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine forging ahead, albeit it at considerable costs and different speeds. Armenia, Azerbaijan and Belarus lag behind, having chosen different routes, irrespective of the EU’s appeals and offers. The DCFTA vs. non-DCFTA distinction helps to differentiate relations between EaP countries but more merit-based distinctions are needed within each group, along the lines of a benchmarked process.
  • Further differentiation does not mean that the EaP as a regional framework should be abandoned. The baby should not be thrown out with the bathwater. The EaP, like the ENP, represents a rich toolbox from which to draw instruments to create the best possible bilateral relationship. But this should not lead to the atomisation of relations.

5) Maintaining unity within diversity.

  • The six EaP countries share a Soviet and post-Soviet past. All have traditional, cultural and economic links with Russia. With the exception of Belarus, all EaP members face direct and existential Russian security challenges to their territorial integrity.
  • A degree of unity in the eastern neighbourhood is both desirable and possible. Regional and sub-regional dynamics do exist and economies of scale to tackle shared challenges (e.g. illegal migration, security of supplies of natural resources like oil and gas) and to tap into transnational opportunities (e.g., integrated transport and agriculture policies) would be lost if the EaP’s multilateral component were to be abandoned.
  • The keyword is “inclusivity”. Which instruments can be used to cater for a merit-based approach to differentiation while keeping a platform for inter-regional relations? The EaP’s multilateral dimension needs to come to full fruition by: (i) beefing up Euronest and meetings of officials at different levels; (ii) promoting and exploiting benefits of sub-regional cooperation through multilateral treaty frameworks while learning lessons from the Energy Community Treaty, the European Common Aviation Area, draft Transport Community Treaty and mobility partnerships.

6) Managing asymmetric expectations.

  • For the EU, the EaP is about promoting European values and standards, with the export of the acquis serving as a template for reforms. For the eastern partners, the EaP is all about managing geopolitical challenges and opportunities. The conclusion of an AA/DCFTA is seen as a stepping stone towards membership of the EU.
  • The European Council has stated that the AA/DCFTAs do not constitute the final step in the definition of closer relations with the EaP countries, but it has refrained from defining the EaP’s finalité in spite of the theoretical potential of Article 49 TEU: member states remain divided on granting these eastern ‘European’ countries an EU membership perspective.
  • The new HR/VP, supported by the EEAS and the Commissioners with external dimensions in their portfolios, should actively manage expectations by insisting on AA/DCFTA implementation while emphasising the symbolic value of visa liberalisation and sectoral integration through multilateral treaty frameworks.

7) Overcoming splits among EU Member States on how to strengthen the EaP.

The world may have become flatter as a result of globalisation, but geography still matters. Threat perceptions, economic interests and social linkages differ greatly across the continent. For the Balts, Poles and the Swedes the EaP is an important policy; for France, Spain, Italy, etc. not so much. This results in an uneven member state effort. Here, the new HR/VP, supported by the EEAS and the ‘RELEX’ Group of Commissioners should make more active and better use of the policy space between the institutions and the member states to initiate collective action, both in strategic terms and operational terms, and move member states to a common accord or even constructive abstention in decision-making in the Council of the EU.