Immediate post-Cold War era was marked by a wave of optimism among Europeans. Europe was being reforged whole and free, to quote George H. Bush in 1989. The realities of 2008 proved slightly different. The optimism and clear-sightedness was seriously dimmed. There was no one clear idea that could help take the European states out of the economic mess. The EaP was at the same time a last cry of European optimism and unity.
A tale of eastern European dream
The Eastern Partnership is, ten years on from its launch, an unwanted child without a clearly defined goal in life. On the one hand, this may be a disheartening judgement on an endeavour that aims to create “the necessary conditions to accelerate political association and further economic integration between the European Union and interested partner countries”. On the other hand, it is precisely this lack of big ideas and clear ownership that is the initiative’s strength at times when realities change at an astonishing pace. The present condition of the EaP might be a source of frustration in some of the eastern states, but it is also a way of keeping those six countries on the EU agenda. In some EU states the initiative is also perceived as a barrier to meaningful engagement with Russia. But alternative ideas, such as a European Eastern policy with Russia on board, can only compromise the fragile but well established EaP framework and encumber the incremental synchronisation of neighbouring countries with the EU itself.
Going back ten years to 2008, hopes were high. Ukraine’s backslide into a chaotic kleptocracy was imminent, but the memory of the Orange Revolution had not yet entirely faded. Belarus was clearly an authoritarian dictatorship, but the ice-cold relationship was thawing as Lukashenko was preparing for elections and there was even space for greater cooperation with the Belarusian national opposition. Moldova was a much-promising EU neighbour ready to implement change. Georgia under Saakashvili was on a clear path of reform and the 2008 war sent shockwaves across Europe. It called for a reaction. The post-Soviet states trapped between the newly enlarged EU and assertive Russia had to be embraced. The solution occurred to very diverse countries with the same intention.
In 2009 the EaP was launched as a way of bringing Eastern European countries closer to the EU, which had itself been shaken by the financial crisis but still remained relatively optimistic. Goals were never firmly set. Poland, one of the engines behind the initiative, weathered the economic storm very well and a positive mood was in the air. Sweden was a credible co-author in the eyes of many western EU states. The largest EU states were slow to praise the initiative but went along.
The Prague Declaration intentionally did not mention the sensitive question of membership, and the expectations of the parties diverged. For Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, however, the first ten years were a case for membership in the long-term; a proof of the countries’ European ambitions. For the EU countries, its clear lack of intended outcome made the endeavour more palatable. However, all states involved were happy to stick to their own interpretations rather than bear the painful truth. Membership of the European Union remained the holy grail, and even the rough domestic climate within the EU did nothing to dispel the magic. The EU could not bear this; nor could it accept the ambitions that grew as the reforms were implemented.
The decision to put all six states into one basket was odd, but worked well as a tactic aimed at attracting the overall attention of the EU. With limited financial backing, a new political concept came into being. To some experts this prudent approach was the only way forward, as the receiver states were not at a sufficient stage of development to cope with a more loaded and rigorous programme at home. The recent Eastern Enlargement was still too recent and even its effects called for a serious reassessment. These were the years of the economic crisis that crippled almost all the EU states, with the salient exception of Poland. The word “enlargement” was already turning sour in Western Europe but the insipid taste associated with the word in the late 2010s was still in the brewing. According to the 2019 Eurobarometer, only around 45% of EU citizens now support the policy, and there is very strong opposition, especially in the “old” member states.
From the EU perspective, the Eastern Partnership was also part of a broader European neighbourhood policy, which also included the Union of the Mediterranean (UoM). There was hope that a stream of financial support would stabilise neighbouring countries and ease tensions on Europe’s borders. In the Mediterranean, the EU’s presence would deter other actors from increased meddling in the continent’s backyard. Taking the UoM for comparison, it could be said with confidence that the EaP states have been the more resilient group which has delivered on the set of goals, and maintaining these countries high on the EU agenda despite a lack of clear leadership or big ideas has to be a priority.
The Eastern Partnership in action
The Europeans of the immediate post-Cold War era got used to big ideas. There was so much fixing to do and, riding a wave of optimism, it could all be achieved. Europe was being reforged whole and free, to quote George H. Bush in 1989. The Copenhagen criteria made the road very clear and the economic resources of the flourishing European economy could be in part directed to the Central and European states in the EU’s antechamber. Even when Slovakia slipped on its path to democracy, the European countries mobilised and helped bring the country back on track.
The realities of 2008 proved slightly different. The optimism and clear-sightedness was seriously dimmed. There was no one clear idea that could help take the European states out of the economic mess. Round the corner, Russia, which had been taken out of the political competition in the 1990s, was flexing her muscles.
The EaP was at the same time a last cry of European optimism and unity, but also a glimpse into the years to come. Just four years had passed since the 2004 enlargement and a new EU country, Poland, succeeded in mustering enough support behind the initiative to support economic integration and accelerate association in its immediate vicinity. A strong reform agenda was put at the centre of the endeavour. Both from a realist’s and an idealist’s perspective this all made sense. The EaP was intended to bring countries of the European countries closer together without a definite goal. While the EU came into the partnership from a position of strength, the expectations were that the partner countries would be cooperative and move forward without the objective of EU membership. The transformation pressure would arise from within, with the right financial and technical support from outside.
The initiative came into being, but despite the positive language, the benchmarks were missing. It took almost seven years for the European institutions to propose the 20 deliverables for 2020 in economy, governance, civil society and connectivity. It is worth identifying a few areas that can really be considered a success on both sides of the partnership. Above all there is trade. Like never before in history the EU is the largest trading partner for all six EaP countries. Ukraine’s shift has been the most spectacular and the most challenging. With a war in its backyard, Ukraine has swung its trade towards the EU, with Poland becoming the single largest trading partner for the countries. The seemingly isolated Caucasus countries are dependent on the EU for their exports. Moreover, Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova all have Association Agreements with the EU in place. These contain the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreements (DCFTA) that give the EaP countries unprecedented access to the single market.
Visa liberalisation has been another crucial aspect of the Association Agreements to have tangible effects for the relationship. Citizens of Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine can now travel to the EU freely. However, an argument has been made that this liberalisation is already the highest prize that the EaP countries could have striven for. This was the closest the partners could come to a grand idea in the absence of the prospect of membership. When thinking in the categories of big ideas, the EU is thus forced to offer something new and equally attractive. To some actors this proposal represents huge financial support to induce countries to stay on the reform path, but that also traps the EU in an “all carrot” policy.
In terms of connectivity the EU has focused on energy security, the road network and the digital market. Progress has been slow and the TEN-T road network expansion is held up as the biggest success in this category. The EU has included the countries in the plans for the network, and pledged funding as well as political support for projects outside the EU. Energy security has lagged because of Russia’s position in Belarus, Ukraine and Moldova. In the long term the infrastructural reforms proposed as part of the connectivity priority can bring the EaP even closer without having to politically integrate those countries. From the perspective of an internally divided Eastern Europe this may be the safest bet. It might, however, be lacking the public relations aspect to it. The only fairly high profile initiative that can have serious power on the societies is the synchronisation of digital markets and expanding the roaming space into the EaP.
With at least these three positive developments in mind and a few practical ideas planned, there can be hope that the EaP will keep rolling on, bringing counties and societies together. None of the developments are spectacular but the change they bring is irreversible. An argument can be made for this approach from the European perspective, because European society is very much focused on domestic politics, with the economy and immigration playing key roles.
Within the EU the negative image of external migration in political narratives cannot be underestimated when so many political parties are building political capital on it. This makes the majority of Europeans wary of greater openness towards their neighbouring societies. Rather, it is oft treated as a threat to the European sense of entitlement and their way of life. So, with the integration stalling in the Western Balkans there is little hope of EaP members gaining a greater understanding of the expectations. For the countries open to economic migration from the East the DCFTA allows for individual regulations. Poland and Czechia have been very welcoming of the influx of workers from Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova. Germany is planning to open its labour market to skilled workers from the EaP countries in 2020. In real terms the EaP and EU societies are coming closer together and, at the same time, remittances are oiling the economies. Russia may historically have been the main source of remitted wealth but with the visa liberalisation that is changing.
Be that as it may, the question remains as to whether the EaP has an alternative grand idea coming from within or from other states. First of all, there is Russian and the Eurasian Union. Two EaP countries, Belarus and Armenia, are already member states. For Belarus and its leader this was the only option, considering the degree of integration with Russia. And energy is obviously the most significant component. For Armenia it is more a question of military security. The country sees itself surrounded by enemies, and to an extent this is true. Russia, therefore, offers a sense of security. The inherent incompatibility with the AA makes the Eurasian Union rather impossible for Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine to join without causing a public outcry and reversing the trends in economic cooperation already mentioned above. The Eurasian Union also represents a return to the Russian world for most of the countries. But the 30 years of history outside a Russia-dominated state has left its mark even in the most pro-Russian states. In the absence of any clear financial and cultural advantages it is hard to imagine this tectonic shift.
The other big idea that circulates in the EaP countries is a strategic partnership with China, which is ready to cooperate with alienated states at the gates of the EU. In short, this idea could be summed up as an economic relationship without the immediate need for political alignment or deep respect for human rights. However, China is not known for offering exceptional treatment to states based on long-term partnerships. All the countries in the region are very small from the Chinese perspective and can only be treated as such. What’s more, China has a fairly short record of long-term cooperation and in many poorer countries (see Africa) it has not produced the expected results, causing social disability and bringing unsustainable debt. China in a way presents a strong case for partnership with the EU, which is a partnership based on treaties rather than a neo-colonial exercise. It can also help motivate the EU to be more prominent in the EaP countries as a counterbalance.
The third possible grand idea is non-alignment. As the promise of enlargement is hard to imagine in the near future and the EaP countries have to impose self-discipline with few benefits to communicate to the broader public, there is the temptation to take one’s destiny into one’s own hands. To Georgia this may be the balancing act between Russian, China and the EU, with the Americans in the background. For the Ukrainians it may be the attempt to make concessions and return to talks with Russia. The Belarusians have already indicated a willingness to review their relationship with the West in light of next year’s presidential election and the uncertainty contained in the Belarusian–Russian relationship. Azerbaijan is the only country in the field that has put this idea into practice. However, this position is only possible thanks to its natural resources. The EU is the largest market for Azerbaijani exports, but it is as much driven by European demand as by the available supply. Relations with China are also developing because, with an export-based economy, Azerbaijan has to hedge its bets across the globe. The main issue for the poorer EaP states is the complete lack of certainty in the longer term and the societies’ willingness to perform a balancing act in the open global economy.
Finally, in this field of alternatives it could be argued that the lack of an overarching big idea for the EaP countries is a reflection of the state within the EU. For now, the states are struggling to define the direction the EU should take, and the same is true of the EaP. But while it is seen as a sign of weakness on the part of Brussels, it is a strength in the eastern countries, as it keeps the reforms going but at a low enough technical level to gain overall approval within the EU. Furthermore, if any of the countries decides to take an unexpected and less liberal course, the EU can only take limited responsibility. For now, as the alternatives appear to be more threats than challenges, even the most aloof EaP states prefer to stay within the initiatives, while Brussels and some other European capitals can enjoy the slow transformation in Eastern Europe.
Questions about the future of the EaP
The other fundamental feature of the EaP ten years after its launch is the missing ownership of the endeavour and the lack of clear leadership. On the one hand, the Polish–Swedish duo has weakened while the European Commission has taken up a more active role. On the other, the EaP countries have not adopted a strong voice in promoting the initiative or integrating partner countries. On both sides of the partnership, awareness of the programme is very limited.
According to conventional wisdom, policy is much more effective when there is a driver pushing it through. In the case of the Eastern Partnership, which according to many officials is not a policy, the historical leaders, Poland and Sweden, are cautious in promoting the agenda on the European stage, though the European Commission has an assigned role and has been taking on responsibility. Swedish diplomats have argued for greater determination from the EaP countries, which would make the initiative easier to defend on the European agenda.
In the case of Poland, the EaP has regained domestic support, which coincided with the 10th anniversary of the initiative. Because the EaP was co-launched by the previous minister Radoslaw Sikorski, it had negative political connotations following the 2015 elections. Finally, in 2019 foreign minister Jacek Czaputowicz outlined renewed engagement in three points: institutionalisation, sectoral cooperation and legal approximation. From the Polish perspective, the initiative offers another significant component in Poland’s regional policy, dominated in 2016–2018 by the Three Seas Initiative, which for political reasons does not include the eastern neighbours, whose social and economic significance is huge. Unfortunately, Poland’s position within the EU has provoked many negative reactions, distancing some of the western countries. France’s position towards Poland, and Ukraine for that matter, has made the EaP more vulnerable. Poland has all the credentials to retake the leadership in pushing for greater EU involvement, but this may be compromised by other states acting in opposition to Poland. This is only exacerbated with Brexit boiling over and the UK less able to cooperate with Poland on Eastern Europe. Other EU countries such as Romania or Lithuania have good reasons to be proactive in EaP advocacy. But these countries do not offer the political and economic weight needed to lead such an initiative. Germany has tried to balance the EaP with the need to include Russia in the EU’s policy towards Eastern Europe. When combined with France’s willingness for a similar breakthrough this may cause turbulence, but the low profile and stable funding can keep the EaP on a safe track. The grand idea of bringing Russia into the fold with strong French backing will only compromise the case and expose Russia’s misdeeds on the international stage.
In the years 2021–2027 the funds so vital to the EU’s ability to move reforms will most likely be distributed via one mega financial mechanism for Neighbourhood, Development and International Cooperation rather than through the European Neighbourhood Instrument as it was in the period 2013–2020. The new proposed mega instrument might increase the EU’s ability to react to crises that require greater funds to be deployed on short notice. But to many observers this rearrangement was a signal that the EU’s neighbourhood might receive fewer resources, and those resources are more vulnerable to global crises than before. On the other hand, it has been calculated that the EaP budget can go up to 7 billion EUR, which can be backed up with loans from European Bank for Reconstruction and Development as well as the European Investment Bank.
Another unknown is the European Commission, which has just been appointed. The appointment of Oliver Varhelyi as the new commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement can be seen as a positive signal towards the EU states such as Poland, Hungary, Lithuania and Romania that have always been more open towards enlargement. However, the appointment of a confidant of Viktor Orbán does not guarantee a clear pro-EaP track, as the neighbourhood policy might become a tool in either Hungarian domestic politics or internal EU debates over the rule of law, corruption and democracy in retreat. The appointment of the High Representative Josep Borrell is just another unknown. He has declared an openness towards Eastern Europe, but considering his Catalan background and the scale of the problem in the southern neighbourhood, the EaP may slip beyond the main frame of focus.
All this said, the lack of ownership does not mean weakness. The initiative has been depoliticised to a great extent and this is the biggest strength of the endeavour. Despite the weak leadership, the agenda has been anchored in the European External Action Service and the Directorate General for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Negotiations. When so many of the EU’s external policies are going through hard times and international politics are causing negative reactions among European citizens, the EaP is a case of moderate success. This protects the initiative against political pressure from the state level or single actors and as long as there is a grain of determination it can move on. It shows the EU’s presence in the region but keeps it under the radar until the urgency for greater integration appears. This low key downplays the importance of the EaP countries in the eyes of potential global rivals but, with the same level of financial support and additional loan mechanisms, can sustain reforms at a positive level.
In times of a shortage of either big ideas or leadership, the EaP is delivering incremental change and greater integration with the EU. In 2009 there were no definite goals and the initiative should not be measured in mostly quantitative terms. The level of cooperation between the EU and Eastern Europe has never in history been at such a level, and reverting to the earlier state of play will be very hard. The way forward is by focusing on the particulars delivered at multiple speeds and communicating strategically. On the one side this plan reflects the wariness of the EU and on the other allows for the EaP countries to tackle the issues that are most relevant in each case.
To make this loose initiative more beneficial to everyone, the actions over the next ten years should respond to the political moods within the Europe Union and pressures within Eastern Europe. The initiative could focus on topics that carry the smallest political burden, such as ecology, local government and digital technology. The subsequent reform would have a better rate of success, root the solution in individual societies and help build up capacity for the future. It may also help free the EU from the enlargement paradigm that sees enlargement as the ultimate form of transformation pressure. This gives the EU time to rethink enlargement and protects the smaller Eastern European states from a Russia eager to re-establish its relations with the West.
The project covering publication of this article is co-financed by the Governments of Czechia, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia through Visegrad Grants from International Visegrad Fund. The mission of the fund is to advance ideas for sustainable regional cooperation in Central Europe.