In November, the Eastern Partnership summit convened for the fifth time. This was a key moment for a great transformation of the Eastern Neighborhood policy that most EU member states have seemed ready to attempt at achieving. While few analysts expect a dramatic reinvention of the policy at this moment, the EU should try to move away from a ‘status quo plus’ approach, which draws on the existing activities and relationships.
The main objective of the Eastern Partnership is to bring about reform in its six participating states, but this has proved a Sisyphean task. In Ukraine, for example, critics say that the government is trying to do a “sweet counter-revolution” against reform efforts. At the same time, Russia’s conflict with Ukraine is still on, including the status quo in Crimea, where the conflict has already claimed 10,000 lives as of this year.
Tensions have also spread to Armenia and Belarus and fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the Nagorno Karabakh could flare up again anytime. Moldova, in contrast, which was once seen as an Eastern Partnership success story is now quite the opposite. Since the beginning of the Eastern Partnership in 2008, the program has evolved in response to the circumstances but it still falls short of a transformative project that could properly serve both Brussels and reform-minded forces in partnership states.
The rise of populism inside the EU and a resurgent Russia have quieted talks of EU expansion. A further eastern expansion is seen particularly undesirable among EU nationals. In the spring 2017, according to Eurobarometer, only 40 percent of respondents were in favor of “further enlargement of the EU to include other countries in future years”, while 49 percent were against.
Ukraine is arguably the most important Eastern Partnership country and the EU can achieve more consistent progress on the reform path here by putting more emphasis on different forces at work inside the country. It is also important to physically connect Ukraine to the EU and therefore Brussels should push for cheaper travel and no roaming charges in Ukraine. It is also important to help the country achieve energy independence by softening its approach to unbundling Naftohaz Ukrainy and by integrating Ukraine into ENPSOG (gas) and ENTSO (electricity).
Importantly, the EU should stay focused on the Eastern Partnership by frontloading as many beneficial policies as possible and communicating the merit of these to the nations of the region in a more effective way than it was done in the past. It is important to get the language right and thus find warmer expressions of solidarity with the six states of the initiative as well as involve them in internal EU decision-making.
‘Partners for Life: Europe’s Unanswered ‘Eastern Question’’ – Research Paper by Andrew Wilson – European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).
(The Research Paper can be downloaded here)