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Technical, geopolitical, or transformative: what future for the Eastern Partnership?

In most Eastern Partnership countries, elites are prepared to adopt EU templates as long as they do not undermine their interests and affect their survival strategies. The EU needs a change of strategy.

A media conference at the 2015 Eastern European partnership held in Riga. Demotix/Aziz Karimov. All rights reserved.At a time when the fourth Eastern Partnership summit is taking place in Riga, the EU’s eastern policy stands at a crossroads. Over the past six years, the EU’s technocratic approach has yielded only limited results.

On the one hand, major progress has been achieved in terms of integration with the EU. Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine are now associated countries and the EU has lifted Schengen visa requirements for Moldovan citizens travelling with biometric passports.

On the other hand, despite progress in these areas, the outlook for democratisation has grown bleaker in most Eastern Partnership countries, economic transformation has been chaotic at best, and poverty and inequality are on the rise. In essence, the EU’s approach (focusing on dialogue with governments and narrow circles of experts) seems increasingly disconnected from the general public and has not favoured broader societal and political change in the region.

In addition, it has unleashed a massive reaction from the Russian authorities, for whom the Eastern Partnership is just a geopolitical instrument that does not speak its name. Support for the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union is on the rise in many Eastern Partnership countries, including Georgia which was the first country to experience Russian backlash in the “common neighbourhood”. Clearly the EU should now move away from its narrow technocratic approach and toward a broader transformative agenda in the Eastern neighbourhood.

A technical offer with geopolitical implications

In contrast to the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP), the Eastern Partnership (EaP) is based upon legally binding commitments taken by partner countries. The Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Areas (DCFTA) in particular, but also the visa liberalisation process, require massive legal approximation with the acquis communautaire and EU and international standards. Thus, the Eastern Partnership clearly has major implications in terms of anchoring partner countries to the EU’s legal framework, norms and practices – especially for the three countries that signed an association agreement with the EU in June 2014. 

This explains the Russian view that the EU’s functional and low-key approach is underpinned by the Union’s geopolitical interests and desire to expand its influence beyond its eastern borders. In essence, Russia has used its massive geopolitical leverage to thwart the EU’s low-key policies in the ‘common neighbourhood’. This was made possible by the fact that the EU has struggled to properly factor key elements inherited from the Soviet past into its policies, namely the role of Russia as a regional hegemon and the multifaceted and complex interdependencies that still link post-Soviet countries together. At a time when it was moving toward the conclusion of Association Agreements, the EU’s Eastern policy was thus caught in a geopolitical trap as a result of Russia’s countervailing actions.

Clearly, the EU has to take better account of regional realities in its policies. This is especially important at a time when Russia is increasingly pushing associated countries toward fragmentation by using breakaway regions and conflict zones as pressure points. In light of these developments, the EU should not focus its policies solely on legal approximation with its acquis, as this focus is at odds with partner countries’ most urgent security needs; it should also pay increased attention to state-building in the region. The grants promised at the Riga summit to support state-building in Ukraine, as well as the deployment of an advisory mission (EUAM) on civilian security sector reform in the country, are welcome signals in this respect. Overall, the Eastern Partnership should be given a higher political profile, with strong leadership by the High Representative. 

Technical or transformative: whose Eastern Partnership?

The EU’s technical approach has another major flaw: it ignores the domestic constellation of actors and post-Soviet practices. In most Eastern Partnership countries, elites are prepared to adopt EU templates as long as they do not undermine their interests and affect their survival strategies and rent-seeking practices. Yet the very fact that EU rules are adopted (and in some cases applied) does not mean that Eastern Partnership countries are moving closer toward becoming societies with widespread political and civic participation and increased citizen control over elites. In a similar vein, the Association Agreements signed with Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine should not be viewed as successes per se or as an end goal.

In order to effectively foster systemic reforms (and not just formal adoption of EU templates) in Eastern partnership countries, the EU needs to address two interconnected shortcomings which may hamper the effective implementation of Association Agreements.

First, the EU needs to review the way in which it conducts its policies, be more inclusive and adjust to local and societal concerns. It needs to address the lack of awareness of its policies among the general public in partner countries. Most citizens have only a vague idea of the concrete implications of far-reaching agreements that have been signed with the EU.

Second, while it has prioritised dialogue with governments (especially during the negotiations on Association Agreements), the EU needs to engage with a broader range of stakeholders and empower drivers of change in order to ensure the effective implementation of commitments. In Eastern Partnership countries, there is little (if any) experience of including civil society in policy dialogue, and much remains to be done in terms of engaging local civil society in the monitoring of EU-Eastern Partners relations. In addition to the support it already provides to capacity-building in state institutions, the EU should also pay attention and provide increased support to the private sector. 

The Eastern Partnership summits should not be assessed only in terms of their ability to publicise ‘rewards’ and key milestones in relations with partner countries. If the Riga summit is assessed only in terms of further progress in EU integration, it may be seen as yet another missed opportunity. Yet the summit (followed by the European Neighbourhood Policy review) may also signal the need for a novel EU approach based on a broader transformative agenda and which is better attuned to societal expectations in the region.

This article is based on a paper titled "Escaping geopolitical entrapment: the EU’s Eastern policy in light of EU-Russia rivalry", which will appear in "Unrewarding Crossroads? The Black Sea Region amidst the European Union and Russia" policy essays collection by Sofia Platform.

About the author

Laure Delcour is Scientific Coordinator of EU-FP7 project CASCADE, FMSH (France) and Senior Research Fellow at IRIS.

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