The EU’s Eastern partnership summit: pragmatism and realpolitik

The EU’s Eastern partnership summit: pragmatism and realpolitik

On 24 November, the 5th Eastern Partnership (EaP) Summit took place in Brussels. Security issues dominated the summit, while EU membership was off the table.

Launched in 2009, the EaP aimed to strengthen relations with its Eastern European neighbours – Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. Facing “enlargement fatigue“ due to the 2004 and 2007 EU expansions, the EaP was the EU’s response to its Eastern neighbours’ European aspirations. While unable to offer a clear membership opportunity, the EU was keen to preserve its influence in the region by offering ”everything but institutions“.

Progress in the EaP countries

During the summit, the EU leadership weighed the progress achieved in the Eastern Partnership (EaP) countries. Over the last two years, Ukraine made significant progress in its rapprochement with the EU, by signing the Association Agreement and visa-free regime. Moldova, a former EU success story, held a low profile during the summit. The EU is still disillusioned with Moldovan elites after the 2014 banking scandal, the biggest in its history.

Armenia managed to sign the Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement on the margins of the summit, an agreement similar to the one Yerevan abruptly scrapped in 2013. The current version, however, excludes the creation of a free trade zone with the EU.

Along with Belarus, the EU launched the Coordination Group, together with the Human Rights Dialogue and Trade Dialogue organizations. While balancing between the West and the East, Azerbaijan achieved good results in negotiating a new bilateral framework with the EU.

Greater focus on security

EaP Member States

The underlying theme of the last EaP summit was security and resilience. For the 5th Summit, the Ukraine crisis and annexation of Crimea forced the EU to add more realpolitik elements such as:

Smart differentiation

Whereas in the previous EaP framework, the countries were grouped into an amorphous bloc, strongly pro-European Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine placed together with pro-Russian, reform-averse Belarus, Armenia and Azerbaijan, the last summit endorsed membership at different speeds.

The Joint Declaration recognized the differentiated relationships, by stating that “the scope and depth of cooperation are determined by the EU´s and partners´ ambitions and needs as well as the pace and quality of reforms.“  

Russia’s influence

Previously it was taken for granted that all the six countries hold themselves voluntarily to the Brussels model. Such factors as domestic vested interests and pressure were not taken into account.The benefits of a Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) were disregarded, while the countries’ internal tensions were not properly evaluated. It was quite a surprise for the EU leaders when in 2013 Armenia cancelled the ready-to-sign Association Agreement overnight and joined the EEU instead.

The current EaP policy abolishes the “either-or“ approach and allows countries to combine pro-European and pro-Russian orientations. After the Ukraine crisis, the EU recognized the specific geopolitical challenges that the EaP countries must face. With this new EaP policy, the EU added more pragmatism and realpolitik to its value-based framework. The EaP countries are not expected to have to make a civilizational choice between EU and Russia anymore.

Better links with EU

20 deliverables for 2020 were officially included in the Joint Declaration. They addressed cooperation in four key areas: strengthening institutions and good governance; economic development and market opportunities; connectivity, energy efficiency and climate change; and mobility and people-to-people cultural interchange.

With these deliverables, the EU acknowledged that faster transformation could be achieved with more physical linkages between partner states. Given the importance of connectivity, the participants agree that better and safer transport links provide new opportunities for development and enable closer communication and exchanges between the European Union and partner countries, as well as among the partners themselves.

With the new visa-free regime, Georgians, Moldovans and Ukrainians can freely travel to the European capitals and experience the EU first-hand. More can be done in terms of people-to-people contacts by, for example, boosting educational exchanges within Erasmus+ and creating leadership programmes.

No immediate membership prospects

The next EaP Summit is scheduled for 2019. Even by then, it is unlikely the EU will offer credible membership opportunities for the EaP frontrunners. Due to rising populism and the bureaucratic process of Brexit, the EU is currently experiencing another case of enlargement fatigue. The latest Eurobarometer´s poll showed that only 40% of its citizens support expansion. The Dutch referendum on Ukraine’s Association Agreement created additional tensions between Brussels and Amsterdam.

But what will happen to the EaP countries after they fulfill the EU’s requirements?  Will they be pulled back into Russia´s sphere of influence if the EU fails to offer an attractive option? If the EU hopes to keep its neighbours happy, it will need to answer these questions sooner rather than later.

In the meantime, the EU could secure a stable neighbourhood by enabling more options and incentives. Among the potential options could be integration into a Customs Union. This would deepen trade relations, as well as enhance customs control and integration into the EU´s gas (ENPSOG), electricity (ENTSO) and digital markets. The lifting of roaming fees could also be a quick win, in terms of having a positive effect on people’s daily lives.

The reforms expected by the EU could be adjusted to the local context, making them more palatable to citizens; however, more time and resources are needed to do so. In particular, the level of investment required to make the EaP economies competitive again would be enormous.

The implementation of the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) is cost-heavy in economic and political terms. The discrepancy between immediate costs and benefits makes it quite difficult for the political elites to advocate for the painful reforms.

The carrot and the stick

A clear EU membership prospective– not just an acknowledgement of their European aspirations – would be an ideal incentive for the EaP to conduct unpopular reforms. Without it, the EaP’s politicians are running the risk of losing political legitimacy and support among their populations. This, in turn, could endanger the fragile stability of the region.

On the other hand, the EU should draw lessons from Moldova´s case and stop endorsing corrupt forces shielded by a pro-European label. The status quo defended by corrupt governments should not be supported by the EU leadership for the sake of preserving stability in the region. Enhanced oversight and stronger conditionality are absolutely necessary to achieve a genuine transformation in the region.

Categories: Europe, Security

About Author

Maria Shagina

Dr. Maria Shagina specializes in European and post-Soviet politics with a particular focus on Eastern Partnership and Russia. She was previously a visiting fellow at the Centre for Russian, European and Eurasian Studies, University of Birmingham and is currently affiliated with the Geneva International Sanctions Network. She holds a double PhD degree from the University of Lucerne and University of Zurich and a M.A. from the University of Dusseldorf.