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To Brussels via the Balkans? The Future of the Eastern Partnership [ENG]

To Brussels via the Balkans? The Future of the Eastern Partnership [ENG]
Poland’s long-term strategic interests lie in the Eastern Partnership and Western Balkan countries’ closest possible integration with the European Union.

Poland should build an identity narrative on references to history and culture that would show a common Balkan–Black Sea space (South-Eastern Europe; two seas – the Black and the Adriatic – on an East–West axis or corridor) as an integral part of Europe.

The countries of the Eastern Partnership and the Western Balkans are united in the fact of the EU recognising them all as European countries, i.e. they can apply for EU candidate status. Unlike the Western Balkans, however, the Eastern Partnership is a very diverse region in terms of political system and EU relations. Within the EaP there is a kind of “Black Sea Group” (Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine, and to a lesser extent also Armenia), which cooperates closely with the EU and is made up of partly free countries (in Freedom House terminology). In the coming years, this situation is unlikely to change – moreover, the division in the EaP may deepen. Despite certain significant differences, the Black Sea group is very similar to the Western Balkans, especially in terms of political system, but also in numerous other social, economic and cultural features.

Regardless of these similarities, EU policies towards the two groupings differ. The Western Balkans are included in the enlargement process, while the Black Sea countries of the Eastern Partnership are considered only to be eastern neighbours of the EU. The key reason for the differences in EU policy towards the two regions is the scale of Russia’s involvement and additionally, with Ukraine, demographic and economic factors. Nevertheless, despite this difference, the legal frameworks for EU relations with the Western Balkans and the Black Sea countries is based on very similar Association Agreements. Therefore, the EU should include the Black Sea countries of the Eastern Partnership and the Western Balkans in all the EU programmes and instruments in which they can formally participate, and also extend their scope to treat the EaP countries like EEA countries. The EU’s strategic goal with regard to both regions in the coming years should be the full integration of the Western Balkans (in the pre-accession period) and the Black Sea EaP into the EU’s single market.

In recent years, Poland has engaged in the Western Balkans on an unprecedented scale, becoming one of the most enthusiastic proponents of EU enlargement in this direction. Poland’s strategic goal should be to convince the EU that, based on the discussed similarities, it should as much as possible treat the Western Balkan and Black Sea EaP countries as one area to which joint initiatives should be addressed (see below). This means not dropping the EaP programme, but considering – as it assumed from the very beginning – the possibility of a very different type of cooperation between EaP countries and the EU. Unfurling a single umbrella over the Western Balkan and Black Sea EaP countries is, for Poland, the best instrument for the maximum possible integration of the latter region with the EU given the present international context. The more advanced the process of the Black Sea EaP’s integration with the EU in the pre-accession dimension, the easier it will be to start the accession process at such time as more favourable conditions appear, e.g. a long- -term weakening of Russia or markedly improved internal situations in the countries of the region.

The ideal scenario for Poland would be the accession of all Western Balkan and EaP countries to the EU. However, because of Moscow’s strong opposition, this goal is very unlikely to be achieved for the EaP until Russia ceases to be an authoritarian and neo-Imperial power using “hard” force against its neighbours. Poland is a supporter of eastward enlargement of the EU, but for many years this issue has held a very limited place in Polish foreign policy, including its European policy. Not even the Ukrainian Revolution of Dignity nor the EU’s signing of Association Agreements including DCFTAs and visa liberalisation agreements with Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine changed that.