Is the Vilnius Summit an Eastern Partnership pre-mortem?

Is the Vilnius Summit an Eastern Partnership pre-mortem?

While news of the Vilnius Summit failure last week was dominated by coverage of the Ukraine’s decision to freeze negotiations with the EU, the Summit has also called into question the viability of encouraging post-Soviet states to adopt EU norms and policies.

Officially launched in 2009, the “Eastern Partnership” can be described as the roadmap for EU relations with its ex-Communist neighbours. Effectively, the Eastern Partnership envisages the adaptation by Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Belarus of a significant amount of the EUs rules and regulations without the possibility of the states becoming full EU members.

The primary instruments are bilateral Association Agreements (AAs) signed between the individual member state and the EU. The AA provides a framework for cooperation for each state, covering areas such as Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreements (DCFTAs), establishing political dialogue in the field of foreign, justice and security affairs and promoting economic and sectoral cooperation and harmonization.

The EU had planned to finally sign an AA after about six years of negotiation with Ukraine last week at the Vilnius Summit, but plans were frustrated by the Yanukovych government’s decision to freeze the process at the eleventh hour.

Ukraine signing their Association Agreement was by no means the only event scheduled for the Vilnius Summit. Over the course of the two-day meeting, Georgia and Moldova both initiated their own Association Agreements, which included reassurances that visa requirements for Moldovan citizens would be lifted, and allowed the former to participate in EU crisis management missions.

Azerbaijan, while not going as far as to sign a formal Association Agreement, also concluded a deal to facilitate visa deliveries. While these agreements are undoubtedly positive, the feeling still persists that these were poor consolation prizes in the wake of the failure to reach a deal with Ukraine.

More importantly, the disappointment of the Vilnius Summit has highlighted fears that the Eastern Partnership may be a fundamentally flawed approach to promoting cooperation between the EU and its Eastern neighbours. Despite optimism when the framework was initially agreed, progress has stalled because the Partnership has become a relatively low priority in the minds of many EU policymakers behind addressing their own economic woes.

The Eastern Partnership states have also lost enthusiasm for the project due to the overbearing amount of conditions required to even begin negotiations on Association Agreements, the limited attractiveness of the benefits in the short term and the lack of a long-term vision for the Eastern Partnership project.

The EU is also competing for influence in the region with Russia, which so far appears to be a fight that the EU is ill-suited for. From the start, the Eastern Partnership has been envisaged as a tool to promote values as opposed to geopolitical interests, and the EU lacks the hard power projection capabilities and political will to engage in the messy power politics that a more robust approach to Russian interference would require. Thus, in many areas, Russia appears to enjoy a decisive advantage over the EU.

While Armenia and Belarus were present at the Vilnius Summit, no arrangement between them and the EU was possible due to both countries adherence to Russia’s Eurasian Customs Union. Ukraine’s reluctance to sign the Association Agreement can partly be put down to the recent trade embargo with Russia that wiped out 1.5 percent of Ukraine’s GDP and cost it over $15 billion in lost trade earnings. Even in Georgia and Moldova, the two states most receptive to the Eastern Partnership, heavy dependence on Russian energy, unresolved territorial disputes and domestic politics mean that their continued loyalty to the Eastern Partnership cannot be guaranteed.

It is clear that serious thinking about the future of the Eastern Partnership is required if it is not to fade away into irrelevance. Since the EU cannot match Russia’s belligerent, zero-sum game approach to diplomacy, it must look to redirect the fight back to its traditional strengths of promoting soft power and shared values. A coherent long-term vision for the Eastern Partnership process must be articulated in a way that eventually allows the participating states to become equal members as opposed to second-class associates with the EU.

Creating alignment between the desires and values of the EU and the Eastern Partnership states will undoubtedly be a long and rocky process, but ultimately the rewards will be far greater than those that could be found from simply throwing money or threats at the problem.

Categories: Europe, Politics

About Author