In 2019, the European Union (the EU) and Eastern Partnership (EaP) countries celebrated the Eastern Partnership’s 10th anniversary. Many things had changed and had been achieved since 2009 when this policy was launched. Although the European Commission's new Communication on the future of the EaP was issued in March 2020, the discussion on how the EaP will look beyond 2020 still takes place. Accordingly, this article aims to reflect on the main achievements of the EaP policy and discuss its challenges.
Since 2009, the EaP policy’s mission has not changed: “to reinforce the political association and economic integration of six Eastern European and South Caucasus partner countries: Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia, Belarus, and Azerbaijan.” In such a way, the EU is promoting its values and standards in these counties through its “normative” power and contributes to the establishment of shared commitment to safeguard stability, security, and prosperity at the whole European Continent.
10 years: what has changed?
For the 10 years, the EaP policy has resulted in significant outcomes. In 2019, the EU was the leading trading partner for Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and the second for Armenia and Belarus. Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia have signed Association Agreements (AA) and Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) Agreements with the EU and got significant benefits from the visa-free regime with the EU. Armenia signed with the EU Comprehensive & Enhanced Partnership Agreement (CEPA) that takes their relations at the next level. Moreover, EaP provided the Eastern European and South Caucasus countries the access to many programs and projects supported by the EU, such as EU4Climate, EU4Business, EU4Digital, EU4Youth, E5P, and EU Water Initiative plus. Besides, the EaP provides platforms for engagement between the EU and neighbouring states, which in turn fostered establishing new formats of bilateral and multilateral dialogues on cooperation. One such platform conducted regularly is the Eastern Partnership Summit.
Furthermore, the EaP policy provided some tangible results for the citizens of the EaP countries. In 2017 the EaP policy framework document “20 deliverable for 2020: bringing tangible results for citizens” was issued after the Eastern Partnership Summit in Brussels. This instrument has set 20 specific objectives and tasks to be performed by the EaP counties. The deliverables are defined in terms of 5 dimensions: economy, governance, connectivity, and society. Also, there are three cross-cutting deliverables.
Along with Young European Ambassadors (YEAs) representing all 6 EaP counties, I tried to evaluate the EaP states' progress in the implementation of this document.
- Trade volumes between all EaP countries and the EU increased between 2016 and 2019: by 27% in Armenia, 55% in Azerbaijan, 40% in Belarus, 7% in Georgia, 42% in Moldova, and 50% in Ukraine;
- More than 18,000 small and medium enterprises in the EaP countries have benefited from the EU financial assistance since 2016. Over 420 business-support organizations received the EU’s aid through the EU4Business initiative;
- The Southern Gas Corridor is reaching completion, with different sections now being connected (the South Caucasus Pipeline, the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline, and the Trans-Anatolian Pipeline); ceremony to mark the construction of the Trans-Anatolian Pipeline took place in Greece in November 2019.
The situation is even better when it comes to strategic communication and investment in youth and their skills. As young people, we experience the opportunities which the EaP and the EU provide us with. Representatives from all 6 EaP countries noted such results as:
- Appointment of more than 700 YEAs in the EaP countries and the EU Member States. Recently, the YEAs initiative celebrated its 4th anniversary. YEAs engage local youth in civic engagement activities, communicate to young people the EU4Youth package’s opportunities through offline and online events, and promote the EU and its values across the region.
- Since 2016, 32,000 students and academic staff from EaP countries participated in academic exchanges; 46,000 young people were involved in other exchanges, trips, and volunteering. It was made possible due to the establishment of visa-free regimes and visa facilitation and readmission agreements between the EU and the EaP states.
But when it comes to the deliverables related to governance (the rule of law, the fight against corruption and organized crime, the role of independent media), there is still a lot of homework to do despite some achievements. All 6 EaP countries face some issues with the implementation of good governance principles. The new framework should tackle this factor with particular cautiousness.
EaP beyond 2020: strengthening resilience
In March 2020, the European Commission issued the new framework document for its EaP policy “Reinforcing Resilience – an Eastern Partnership that delivers for all.” It lays down 5 sets of objectives to be achieved:
- A Partnership that creates – together for resilient, sustainable and integrated economies;
- A Partnership that protects – together for accountable institutions, the rule of law and security;
- A Partnership that greens – together towards environmental and climate resilience
- A Partnership that connects – together for a resilient digital transformation;
- A Partnership that empowers – together for resilient, fair, and inclusive societies.
Strengthening resilience will be one of the key goals for the EaP in the next years. In particular, resilience in the areas of democracy, society, economy, energy, cyber security, media, environment, health, and human security will be under supervision. In comparison with the former agenda, the new once focuses more on the areas of green and digital transformations. It may be connected with the EaP states' pursuit to integrate into the EU markets, such as digital or energy markets. Nevertheless, such a dimension as “partnership that protects” should be reconsidered and targeted at reforms and finding the best solutions.
The EU remains committed to supporting all its previous commitments, including financial and expert assistance to the EaP countries. All the projects of the EU shall be prolonged. Perhaps, it is worth launching such programs as EU4Par and EUACI, which already exist in Ukraine, in all EaP countries. That will enhance the EU’s support in establishing strong institutions and eradicating corruption in the region. Concerning COVID-19, special attention should be paid to the health sector. This point was stressed out by the participants of the last EaP video conference. Already In 2020, the new project was released - EU Solidarity for health initiative.
Although the new agenda is up to come into force, it is far from being enough to make the future EaP policy prosperous and resilient. A lot of things and challenges should be taken into consideration both at the country’s levels and at the regional level. By the new Eastern Partnership Summit in 2021, the EU has to come up with a renewed and finalized approach to the implementation of the EaP policy.
Challenges for the EaP region: Is the EU ready to deal with them?
Initially, the EaP policy was founded on the grounds of meeting both sides’ interests: the EaP countries and the EU, along with its Member States. The EaP countries were to undertake economic and political reforms. The EU and its Member States in response were to offer them new contractual relations, including the signing of deep and comprehensive free trade agreements, visa liberalization, etc. Such an EU approach to the EaP policy is called “more for more”: the more countries are transforming their system to reflect the rule of law principle and the EU standards, the more support and benefits from the EaP policy they gain. If 10 years ago such a deal was immensely attractive for all EaP states, now the situation differs: some countries have achieved a lot, while others are still on the first stage of their cooperation with the EU. The EU has to suggest more to the EaP countries to motivate them to fulfil new objectives. For instance, it may provide them with the perspectives of membership. The reward shall be increased based on the success in the implementation of the required reforms. At the same time, different EaP states have different ambitions, which should also be taken into account by the EU. And here we paved the way to another fundamental challenge.
There is a vast difference between the six EaP countries. Their progress in the reform implementation and approximation to the EU law vary in terms of “quality and intensity” - from one country to another. Some states have signed AA, DCFTA, received the visa-free regimes. But for the others, it is still a task to be achieved. Some EaP countries have experienced the direct violation of their territorial integrity by the Russian Federation and once and forever have chosen the path to EU. But others still have close relations with the Russian Federation and are members of the Eurasian Economic Union. It is one of the reasons why building the uniform resilient region is a task that may be counted to be unfeasible. Even though, in general, all EaP countries have a lot in common, there is an expert idea that a differentiated approach would work better. The associated countries lobbied for the so-called Trio Strategy. Such a strategy will allow them to get new instruments for the implementation of reforms.
Recently, I participated in the training organized for the YEAs by the European Commission representatives. At this event, Lawrence Meredith (Director for the EU’s Eastern Neighbourhood at DG NEAR) and Luc Devigne (Deputy Managing Director for Europe and Central Asia at EEAS) reinforced that the future policies on the EaP need to remain both differentiated and inclusive. The EU proposed the same conditions of cooperation to all the countries. Some have made their choice and received the promised benefits; some did not. The differentiation already exists among EaP states at the level of their mutual commitments and responsibilities. The partnership has developed according to the interests, ambitions, and progress of each partner. If the EU officially supports the differentiated approach, it may significantly polarize the EaP region.
The third challenge is the growing assertiveness of Russia in the region. Hybrid wars and disinformation campaigns are the modern reality for EaP countries. It requires the security aspect to be added to the EU’s approach to dealing with the EaP policy. More cooperation is needed in terms of digital security. In its communication, the General Secretariat of the Council of the EU states that it values the importance of enhancing, where appropriate, security dialogues and the cooperation in the area of the Common Security and Defence Policy and welcomes in this regard the Eastern partners' valuable contribution to EU missions and operations. Indeed, such countries as Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia may share their experience of confronting and resisting the Russian propaganda.
Last but not the least threat to the effective implementation of the new EaP policy is China's growing power in the region. It is the challenge not solely for the EaP countries, but also for the EU in general as it may find itself in the position between the USA-China confrontations. China is gaining more and more importance as a trade partner of the EaP countries. Respectively, the region is firmly moving towards being a multi-dimensional from a two-dimensional area shaped by Russia and the EU. Tense relations with China, which may not be called a democratic state, may undermine the credibility of the EU's “normative” power. However, as long as the EU is associated within the EaP citizens with changes, the rule of law, and democracy, the support of the processes of euro integration remains high. According to the EU Neighbours East survey in 2019, 65% of the EaP citizens (6% more than in 2017) are confident that “the EU provides tangible benefits to citizens in their everyday lives.” Therefore, the EU shall continue its economic support to the region, and invest more in education and communication campaigns to boost its visibility.
The EaP policy has definitely helped to strengthen the relations between the EU and the EaP countries and has set states at the road of reforms implementation. But the countries themselves and the EaP region are transforming. Even though the EU is dealing with lots of internal and external challenges itself, it must pay attention to these transformations and revise its approach to the EaP to “take the Eastern Partnership to the next level” as Ursula von der Leyen asked the Commissioner for Neighborhood and Enlargement Oliver Varhelyi in her mission letter.
We, citizens of the EaP states and YEAs in particular, look forward to the 2021 Eastern Partnership Summit, hoping to see renewed comprehensive differentiated and inclusive framework policy that would dot the i's and cross the t's concerning the question of “Eastern Partnership: what is beyond 2020”.
I am very grateful for the assistance in writing this article to the Young European Ambassadors Nensi Mkrtchyan (Armenia), Shujaat Ahmadza (Azerbaijan), Mary Gevorgyan (Belarus), Giorgi Agirbaia (Georgia), and Vladislav Kaim (Moldova).
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the project or the European Commission.