The Eastern Partnership May Need Reform Given Change in US Foreign Policy

The Eastern Partnership May Need Reform Given Change in US Foreign Policy

Washington’s engagement in European security affairs is uncertain given that its pivot to Asia looks set to continue under Biden’s presidency. With demand for further action by Brussels against Belarusian authorities for violence and human rights abuses in the country, the EaP may need to assume a greater foreign policy capability given the likelihood of a diminished US strategic presence in Europe.

The crisis in Belarus and the outbreak of conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh are testing the European Union’s capability to act as a source of regional security. Political instability, violations of human rights and ethnic conflict within members of the Eastern Partnership (EaP) is calling into question Brussels’s foreign policy strategy to further integrate six former Soviet states with the EU.

Meanwhile, both Republican and Democrat candidates in this year’s presidential election have been clear in their intention to refocus US foreign policy on the rise of China and the security of the Asia-Pacific region. 

Unless changes are made to the EaP to provide Brussels with a greater foreign policy presence, the EU as the key player that guarantees stability in its Eastern neighborhood may be uncertain.

The EaP integration strategy based on conditionality limits its regional stabilisation capability

The Eastern Partnership was launched in 2009 with the objective to deepen the economic-political relations between the EU and the former Soviet states of Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. In 2017, in an attempt to bring these countries closer to the European fold, policymakers in Brussels proposed 20 deliverables by 2020 in social, political, economic and legal areas. This initiative followed a similar approach to that taken by the strategy of conditionality in the accession process of the former Warsaw Pact states in Central and Eastern Europe. 

The European Union provided a ‘road-map’ for membership in the form of the Copenhagen Criteria, which stated that accession was conditional on meeting certain requirements that consolidate the rule of law, a market economy and an ability to effectively implement measures outlined in the acquis communautaire. The democratic and economic transformation of Central and Eastern Europe secured by EU enlargement in 2004-07 reinforced the case that conditionality should be used in the case of the former states of the USSR in an effort to incentivize reforms. 

The EaP so far treads carefully in its engagement with the post-Soviet space in order not to challenge Russia since the Ukrainian crisis while employing conditionality to strengthen EU influence in the region. 

While it has brought the partner states closer to the EU through the establishment of Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Areas and visa liberalisation regimes, the EaP specifically omits a pathway towards EU membership. It also invests very little in security-related assistance. The conclusions in May on the Eastern Partnership policy beyond 2020 fails to address the lack of investment in cyber security despite Russian deployment of disinformation campaigns

The soft approach of the Partnership comes after the French president, Emmanuel Macron, called for Brussels to reset its relations with Moscow at the Munich Security Conference earlier this year. While in Germany, ostpolitik prevails as Merkel believes that stabilisation of the region can only be achieved with Moscow’s involvement in the process. There seems to be no indication that the EaP will shift its approach towards engagement with the post-Soviet space given the risk of a strong Russian reaction.

However, tensions in Belarus and Armenia-Azerbaijan suggest that the EaP’s EU-enlargement-process-style strategy is ill-suited to deepening the political-economic relations between Brussels and the former Soviet states. This flaw is demonstrated in the lack of consensus among the EU-27 to find a coordinated policy response to the region’s political instability. At the same time, the issue of corruption remains unaddressed as conditionality proves to be ineffective at incentivising governments to implement rule of law reforms. 

The focus of the Joint Communication on EaP policy beyond 2020 lies instead on making commitments to goals on decarbonisation and sustainable development. The Lukashenko regime in effect is also left to benefit from the inflows of EaP financial assistance as a result of opening up a dialogue with the EU whilst remaining unharmed by sanctions in the form of a Cypriot veto.

With regard to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the EaP maintains a limited strategic presence as Macron chose to point the blame towards Turkey for the escalation and urged NATO members to respond. Meanwhile, the EU has done little more than hold a debate in the European Parliament to condemn the conflict. The EaP is also held back in facilitating crisis management in the South Caucasus as Brussels could do nothing but deplore an end to the ceasefire brokered by France, Russia, and the United States on 25th October according to a statement by the European External Action Service.

Change in US foreign policy means that the EaP may need to assume a greater security role

The outcome of the US election in November will be an indication that the EaP needs reform so that it has the institutional capabilities to respond to episodes of instability on Europe’s eastern frontier. The Trump administration made clear its intention to withdraw from European security affairs. Merkel’s defence minister, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, gave a speech in October stating that Germany should do more to strengthen EU security presence in the Eastern neighbourhood after the US president withdrew 12,000 troops, citing Berlin’s failure to meet NATO defence spending targets. 

Another signal to the European Union that the EaP requires a strategic rethink is the refocusing of Washington’s foreign policy on the rise of China and the Asia-Pacific region’s security under a Biden presidency. A leading candidate for Biden’s Defense Secretary, Michele A. Flournoy, highlights the growing risk of conflict between the US and China in an article for Foreign Affairs. Biden has also made a tailored deterrence strategy against North Korea a foreign policy priority under his administration. So Brussels will likely have to come to terms with confronting its security affairs without an American role in Europe.

The Eastern Partnership may now have to embed itself within a coordinated EU foreign policy if it is to meet its target of deepening the political-economic relationship between Brussels and the six states within Russia’s orbit. 

The current conditionality approach has proven to be limited in making substantial progress on post-Soviet democratic reforms and responding to outbreaks of turmoil in the region. The vacuum of Western strategic presence – due to the likely withdrawal of Washington’s postwar presence in Europe – means that instability in the Eastern neighborhood may remain until a process of EaP reform is initiated.

Categories: Insights, Politics

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