|Author: Pavel Havlicek|
THE EASTERN PARTNERSHIP AT THE TURN OF A NEW DECADE: CONTINUING WITH UNCERTAINTY OR IDEAL CONDITIONS?
The last year´s update on the Eastern Partnership (EaP) policy celebrating its ten-year-anniversary had an intriguing question in its title “and where to go next?”, which is basically what has bothered the decision-makers, state officials as well as expert and civil society community over the last year. And while the celebrations concluded that the EaP has so far been a success bringing numerous concrete benefits to all six partner countries and the EU, there was also a general agreement on the need for reflection and looking for new ways forward beyond 2020.
During summer and autumn 2019, the EU´s eastern policy went through a complex reflection and revision process organised by the European Commission that allowed all stakeholders to brainstorm on the future of EaP beyond 2020. The reason for that was not the change of power in Brussels after last year´s European Parliament elections, but mainly the fact that the EaP´s reform agenda of 20 points for 2020 was soon to expire. Apart from that, the year of 2020 represents another milestone for the associated countries and their bilateral relations with the EU, which in several respects reach the moment when mutual obligations as part of AA/DCFTA should be delivered and updated. This is particularly the case for Ukraine but to some degree also for Georgia and Moldova. Altogether this means that the EaP must come up with a new agenda.
Several months of collecting feedback and determining the consensus among the EU Member States, partner countries and EU institutions, as well as the expert community and civil society, finally concluded in spring 2020. On 19 March 2020, the European Commission presented its vision “Reinforcing Resilience – an Eastern Partnership that delivers for all” for the future of EaP in the upcoming decade. In addition to a strong emphasis on the economy and concrete benefits for the citizens of Eastern Europe, the Commission communication also set out new priorities of digitisation and combating climate change.
The EU´s executive also came up with a new approach to promoting societal resilience of six Eastern European countries that should in the future be better prepared to resist domestic and external shocks. On the other hand, the Commission acknowledged weak progress in areas of rule of law, fight against corruption or good governance that it promised to amend by closer monitoring and incentivisation of implementation of reforms in these challenging areas. At the same time, it refused to engage in a highly political debate about a closer political association or any kind of comprehensive vision for the region in the future due to a lack of consensus on the membership of Eastern European countries in the EU.
It also did not acknowledge efforts to further differentiate among the EaP countries and give preferential treatment to the three associated countries of the EU – Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova. These issues remained for the European Parliament, the EU Members and the EaP countries themselves to negotiate and decide before the high-level summit of the EaP, which was supposed to take place in mid-June 2020 at the end of the Croatian presidency of the European Council.
For the lack of response to some of the fundamental questions related to the future of EaP, a whole number of actors shared their criticism of the Commission´s approach. This was particularly the case given the low emphasis on the fundaments of cooperation and European values, which in the past constituted the overall framework for cooperation with the EU. In the Commission’s communication, the principles of democracy and human rights, the rule of law and fight against corruption or the support for independent media and civil society were without significant hierarchy mixed in between finance and banking operations or the new domain of public health protection on the list of Commission´s priorities.
This might not come completely as a surprise given the Commission´s emphasis on pragmatism in the international relations based on the 2016 EU´s Global Strategy but it became a subject of criticism from some Member States anyway. Others, particularly Members of the European Parliament, lambasted Commission´s unwillingness to promote further differentiation and move the relations with three associated countries to a higher level, as Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova requested. More concretely, Ukrainians, Georgians and Moldovans lobbied for the so-called Trio Strategy that would allow the three associated countries to gear up their integration into the European project, including by having new instruments for implementation of reforms or a brand new flagship initiative similar to the “Berlin Process” of Western Balkans as well as privileged access to the EU decision-making and a special calendar of events until 2030, as the 2019 EPP Congress in Zagreb elaborated.
While the Council´s conclusions from 11 May 2020 brought the fundamental values of cooperation back to the core of EaP agenda, a substantial resistance and disagreements among the Member States as in the past surrounded the reference to “European aspirations” of the associated countries and the future political association and deeper economic integration into the EU´s Single Market. Although the conclusions were carefully drafted and presented a highly balanced vision for the period beyond 2020, for some, there was still not enough of substance and concrete policy actions for the future of EaP until 2030, except for sustainability and aligning with the 2030 SDGs of UN.
The European Parliament, on its own, took time to reflect on the future of EaP but then resolutely supported both of the contested issues of deeper economic integration and closer political association, especially when even proposing inclusion as observers of the associated countries in activities of the Commission and the Council, and the emphasis on the core values of the EU in mutual relations. Its recommendations approved by the foreign affairs committee AFET on 19 May 2020 also proposed to include the associated countries in agencies and intra-EU programmes and initiatives such as the Energy Union, Transport Community and Digital Single Market. By supporting small steps of integration, the Parliament presented an interesting and concrete way to the new decade, even if are not so ambitions on the enlargement in the declarative sense.
When assessing the current state of the EaP and the individual partner countries, it is useful to apply the logic of resilience, which the EU sees “in the areas of democracy, society, economy, energy, security, cyber, media, environment, health, notably in the context of the current COVID-19 pandemic, and human security”, as the Council´s conclusions most recently mentioned. The crisis of public health caused by coronavirus has exposed numerous vulnerabilities of the partner (and also the EU) countries to domestic and external threats. The region has seen many old problems now being more exposed and worsened by the emergency.
In Azerbaijan and Belarus, for example, we have seen the local regimes cracking down on the political opposition as well as civil society and independent media who were blamed for causing the pandemic. Dozens were put in jail, in administrative detentions, or repressed financially and by other means. Other countries, such as Armenia, Georgia and Ukraine, had a higher degree of societal cohesion and cooperation between the state and its citizens, including civil society. But even there the local elites could not miss an opportunity to strengthen their positions and power over the citizens as well as take the credit for economic redistribution and/or providing their citizens with basic means of protection.
It was especially the case since four out of six Eastern European states are supposed to hold presidential or parliamentary (in case of Ukraine local) elections over the next several months. Among them, Moldova has recorded a high level of societal tensions and polarisation before the crucial presidential elections, miscommunication, and chaos in the society. Moldova has witnessed, for example, an escalation in relations with medical personnel who criticised the government for lack of preparedness to face the crisis and from that stemming conflicts around freedom of speech and the Audio-visual Council of Moldova or a public contestation of the government negotiations of a loan from Russia.
Moreover, to further add on the pile of domestic challenges, the EaP countries continue to face problems with separatism and the so-called de facto states that are not operating under the jurisdiction of five of the six partner countries. While the situation of the so-called people´s republics in Donetsk and Lugansk proved complicated, in Nagorno Karabakh we have seen complete isolation of the local population and lack of support from the international community due to disagreements between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the territory, including in humanitarian aspects.
On the other hand, Georgia´s approach to Abkhazia was by experts identified as exemplary since it allowed the local population to enjoy the benefits of cooperation with international organisations and, for example, access of the WHO expert. Also, what proved to be complicated was to effectively deal with the consequences of the “Infodemics” further exacerbated by the Russian propaganda and disinformation operations, which continued to sow mistrust and divide the state and its institutions from the citizens.
The economic crisis hit the EaP countries with small (with the sole exception of Ukraine) and open economies particularly hard. Georgia has been the most affected of the six countries with the year-to-year real decline of GDP up to 10.2 %, according to the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development report from May 2020. Georgia has paid a particularly high price for its early and efficient start of the emergency regime that has protected the lives of people but crippled down the economy. Second in a row, Armenia, Ukraine and Moldova reported a decrease of around 8 per cent of real GDP, while Belarus and Azerbaijan reported -6.2, and -5.4 respectively. The economies of the EaP countries, further affected by the drop in the price of oil and gas resources, proved extremely vulnerable to such economic shocks and slowdown of the global economy.
On the other hand, the local population and civil society proved immensely resilient towards these domestic and external shocks could mediate the most severe implications of the pandemic. For example, in Armenia, the local population managed to fundraise a significant amount of money for the state authorities to implement the necessary measures and provide protection to the most vulnerable groups in society. In Ukraine, the cooperation between civil society and the local business community managed to mobilise resources, provide medical equipment or help the elderly and ill citizens.
The Belarusian civil society has, on its part, completely supplemented the state in raising public awareness of the problem, mobilisation of resources in the society as well as buying and creating the personal protection equipment, including face masks. The Lukashenka's regime refused to even acknowledge the challenge and its real extent. On top of that, the Belarusian president spread lies about the effect of coronavirus and offered a fake means of protection misinforming the citizens. The Belarusian authorities also refused to cancel public events, including the 9th May parade or football matches that continued to attract a large number of citizens that could easily fall victim to the virus.
Armenian and Georgian civil societies also delivered help to the citizens and offered their expertise and capacity to the state to fight the pandemic together. Therefore, while the region has seen a mix of positive and negative practices and responses from the partner countries, these usually reflected a long-term trend in the behaviour of the state authorities and their interactions with the citizens and civil society.
Despite all the input from numerous state and non-state stakeholders, much remains to be seen in the future of the Eastern Partnership beyond 2020. The EaP will in any case not have an ideal start of the new decade due to the COVID-19 pandemic and its multi-level implications for the EU and EaP countries. But while many things remain unpredictable, including the time and format of the next summit, there are some reasons to remain hopeful and believe that the Partnership will remain a priority for the EU and its foreign policy. But for that, the EU needs to meet several conditions.
First and foremost, the EU must realise that except for the Western Balkans, the Eastern Partnership is the second most important and closest region in the world, in which the EU should take actions, as it promised when the European Commission called itself “geopolitical”. It might be the geopolitical and also “geoeconomic” approach, which the Commission started using in south-eastern Europe, which might ultimately win the hearts and minds in Eastern Europe. This could get the local citizens and elites on the side of the Union by pursuing a closer economic and political integration, while at the same time decreasing the influence of third parties, such as Russia and China.
The promised EU´s economic aid and macro-financial assistance to respond to the pandemic, but also to bring an economic recovery in mid- and long-term horizon might represent the right approach. But along with that, the EU also needs to apply a “smart conditionality” to push for pro-democratic and pro-market reforms that could move the EaP countries closer to the Union. At the same time, it is essential to carefully manage the mutual expectations and support local pro-reform circles, including politicians, civil society, or business, by sufficient financial and technical means. It has to be clear to the EaP societies that the perspective of EU membership is realistically off the table for the foreseeable future.
Second, before the future Eastern Partnership summit, there needs to be more clarity on the political narrative and a serious offer to develop relations with the Eastern partners in the next decade. It is obvious that the European Parliament and the several EU Member States, especially from Central and Eastern Europe, are interested in keeping the EaP high on the EU´s agenda and deepen the mutual relations not only in the economic realm but also politically. However, it is crucial to convince the rest of the EU that this investment will pay off in the future and bring prosperity and stabilisation of the Eastern Neighborhood not only to Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova’s neighbours but to all the EU Member States from Portugal to Finland.
If the EU stands united, despite the challenge of pandemic COVID-19 and different priorities, and ambitious in its offer for the period after 2020, at the end of the upcoming decade, we might see Eastern Europe that is well-prepared for deeper political integration to the EU, along the lines of the UK´s future agreement, and a full-fledged form of economic integration into the Single Market. It will be not only the final declaration from the upcoming summit and presentation of the new set of deliverables but also the negotiations on the new MFF until 2027, which will underpin the EU´s success in this strategic region.
Finally, what must be avoided by any means are bilateral agreements with Russia over the heads of eastern partners, which would throw the region in instability and internal chaos, opposite to the EU’s original objectives of promoting stability, security and prosperity in Eastern Europe. On contrary, with the help and support of the local population, similar to the situation of Central Europe during the 1990s when returning “back to Europe”, local elites, business and civil society must help to implement painful reforms and modernise their countries and raise the living standards of their citizens because it is important for them (and not their partners in the West).