Eastern Partnership: A policy that moves slowly, but surely
11 July 2011
Two years ago, led by Poland, the EU launched its Eastern Partnership with countries of the former USSR. Now that Warsaw is preparing to take over the rotating presidency, experts are painting a rather dispiriting outcome for this project.
The Partnership’s Facebook page has an awful lot of comments along the lines of: “Such beautiful words – and when will we see something concrete?” Or: “The Eastern Partnership, this flagship initiative backed by Poland – it is just a sham?”
Two reports now out try to weigh up the impact the Partnership has had so far. The first, drafted by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), highlights the fact that the EU has never enjoyed such a presence in the post-Soviet space as it does today – and yet remains unable to translate that presence into power and to have any real influence on political developments in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.
The report’s authors, Nicu Popescu and Andrew Wilson, point to increasing authoritarian tendencies in all countries involved in the Partnership, with the exception of Moldova. Belarus, Armenia and Azerbaijan fail to come up to any democratic standard. Although certainly more democratic, Ukraine and Georgia have yet to reach the level of Western-style democracy. Incapable of promoting democracy in these countries, the EU is no better able to defend its economic interests either.
Popescu and Wilson believe that a failure of democratisation in eastern Europe could lead to revolutionary unrest similar to that in north Africa and the Middle East. The consequences of such a scenario are predictable: influxes of illegal immigrants and outflows of money spent on stabilising the conflicts, followed by dispatches of peacekeeping missions, negotiators and observers, etc. It is therefore in the EU’s interest to commit itself to the east without delay.
The second report on the Eastern Partnership was drawn up by the analysts of the Institute of Public Affairs (ISP) in Warsaw. One of the authors, Elzbieta Kaca, affirms in it that "two years on, the Partnership's balance sheet is in the red. The Eastern Partnership Summit in Warsaw in the autumn, however, can turn it all around. Success would bolster Poland’s leadership in the eastern policy of the EU; failure, on the other hand, would lead to the marginalisation of the Partnership."
Moscow is piling on the pressure
This argument, repeated incessantly by Polish diplomats, sounds a bit like a magic formula. How can we believe, in fact, that a summit bringing together the leaders of six post-Soviet states and the EU could, by itself, change anything? To keep the Partnership vital and growing, the peoples of the partnership countries must actually be attracted to and interested in an alliance with Europe. As for the elites, they seem to find the Putin model more appealing than the European one.
The true challenge before the Partnership is to promote the Union in countries like Armenia, Azerbaijan and Belarus and to encourage their leaders to go for the European model. That mission will take not just two years, but rather two decades.
Establishing the European model would seem an easier task in Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, where populations are much more pro-European, as are the elites – officially, at least. In all three countries the main challenge is to turn words from on high into action on the ground.
According to the authors of the ISP report, the key to having the Partnership succeed lies in quickly concluding a free-trade agreement between the EU and Ukraine, which would bring Ukraine into the orbit of the Economic Community, with its trade rules and customs duties. Signing such an agreement would take Ukraine a long ways towards its integration into Europe.
That agreement could be signed during the Polish presidency of the EU, which begins on July 1. Ukraine, however, is being wooed by a competitor – an agreement on a free-trade zone among Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia, which would undermine any economic convergence with Brussels. And Moscow is piling on the pressure, making it difficult to predict what the authorities in Kiev will choose.
Essential to increase the financial clout of the Partnership
The best way to encourage a swing towards Europe in the partnership countries, the ISP report suggests, would be making it easier to get visas. On this point, it's Ukraine once again that has made the most progress with its two-stage programme towards waiving visas. To the despair of the Ukrainians, however, the current agreement on facilitating visas mentions no concrete date for completing the process.
Moldova wants to negotiate setting up a similar plan to do away with visas, and the same goes for Georgia, which has so far reached merely an agreement on facilitating visas with the Union. In the short term, the other countries can hope for little more than the promise of visa waivers in the future.
Whether the Partnership will succeed also rests on grand modernisation projects, such as upgrades to the electricity grids. The lack of financial resources allocated to the Partnership, however, often makes it impossible to carry out those projects, which then end up shelved in a drawer.
It is essential, therefore, to increase the financial clout of the Partnership, within the EU framework or by rallying to the cause other institutions such as the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development – or even external donors, like the United States, Japan, Norway and Switzerland. The supplementary financing should be deployed to carry out a major project that, funded wholly from its own sources, would provide real visibility to the Partnership.
For now, this is what the flagship initiative is missing. Although an excess of optimism and triumphalism seems out of place, claims that the Partnership has died even before it was born are greatly exaggerated.