Thought Babble

The EU’s Eastern Partnership needs a new approach

Nowhere is the Union’s neighbourhood policy more mature than in the East, yet expectations are high and successes manageable.

Political balancing act

The Eastern Partnership was and still is the EU’s attempt to reach a first major milestone in its official neighbourhood policy, which has been in place since 2004. So far, however, this mission has only been partially successful. Ten years have passed, and it is still not entirely clear what the long-term objectives of this cooperation format are and whether it will be possible to meet the – very different – expectations of our Eastern partners.

The bipolarity of the region at the heart of Europe and Russia’s neighbourhood demands a constant political balancing act from the statesmen of the six countries – Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine, and Belarus. Expectations towards the EU range from future membership at the one to far-reaching isolation at the other end. The Eastern Partnership also suffers from this bipolarity, which, instead of bringing the region as a whole closer to the European project, was used from the outset as a format for bilateral expectation management between the EU and the individual partner states.

Opening to the East

And yet, incipiently, the Eastern Neighbourhood drew the attention of European and also Austrian investors as a promising new market. Domestic companies benefited from a new export market with potential, and small and medium-sized enterprises grew to internationally operating companies by getting their two feet into the region. In spite of the economic boom, too little was happening in the region’s political rapprochement with Europe. During the political crises and armed conflicts of recent years, the EU was always in the role of a spectator – for many a reason for harsh criticism.

In 2013, Europe and the world witnessed the dramatic failure of the Vilnius summit in Lithuania, where then Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich refused to sign his country’s negotiated association agreement with the EU at the last minute. In one fell swoop, he destroyed the hopes of millions of Ukrainians for whom there seemed no alternative to a European future for their country. The fact that this step was prepared by Russian influence only came to light later. After Maidan and the occupation of the Crimea, Ukraine is currently still caught up in a civil war. And the European Union in its worst relations with Russia for a long time.

New roadmap since 2017

At the Brussels Summit in November 2017, a major milestone for the Eastern Neighbourhood was finally reached: the “20 Deliverables for 2020”, a document in which the EU member states and the countries of the Eastern Partnership agreed on 20 concrete goals for 2020.

With these 20 goals in the areas of the economy, institutions, infrastructure and social development, there is for the first time since 2009 a concrete roadmap and associated work order that both sides of the partnership have to work on. To a certain extent, this document may even be regarded as the first “common vision” about the direction the countries of the Eastern Partnership should develop to by cooperating with the EU. In its approach, the document goes beyond the association and free trade agreements that the EU concludes with individual countries in the region, albeit without any legal binding force.
Working on the narrative

Working on the narrative

What the Eastern Partnership needs, apart from a definition of concrete goals, is a new narrative. Our partners are rightly calling for clarity and a long-term perspective, which must at least have addressed the issue of possible EU membership. Simply exporting stability so as not to import instability, as Neighbourhood Commissioner Johannes Hahn describes the EU’s approach in its neighbourhoods, is not enough. The current primary purpose of the Eastern Partnership – to create stability and security for the region – is not a sufficient basis for a long-term vision beyond 2020.

Partnership at eye level

Europe can offer so much more for its eastern neighbours: an honest partnership at eye level in contrast to China, which is also attempting to export its own social model via huge infrastructure projects, and Russia, which is mainly using classic military tactics and the threat of trade embargoes as “partnership” instruments. A huge domestic market with weight in the world economy, whose standards are high and whose products are in demand. An access to a work and education area characterized by unrestricted mobility and where the most sustainable and socially fair standards still apply in a global comparison. And last but not least, inviolable basic values with regard to democracy, the rule of law and human dignity, which are also the cornerstones of our prosperity. The European model of society is subject to envy throughout the world, unless you lie to yourself and hide behind a policy of oppression and degeneration.

For the success of the Eastern Partnership, or EaP for short, it will be crucial whether interregional cooperation can also be stepped up. Formats such as EaP6+1 (one negotiates with one voice vis-à-vis the EU) or EaP2 or EaP3 on matters for selected countries can promote this process and are already being lived outside of official diplomacy. The European Union will have the delicate role of creating a sense of unity between six states that they themselves still do not live up to. This would create an important prerequisite for the Eastern Neighbourhood Policy to be able to move from bilateral expectations to a regional success management system.

This article was originally published in the Austrian newspaper, der Standard on May 9th, 2019. It is republished here with permission from the author.

Philipp Brugner
Born (1987) and raised in Austria, higher education in Russian Studies (Master's) and Eastern European Politics (Bachelor's degree) at the University of Vienna and State Pedagogical University St. Petersburg. Currently continuing academic education in public policy economics with an online course at the University of Oxford and pursuing a certificate in EU affairs from the Centre international de formation européenne. Professional experience in print and online journalism, foreign and security policy and EU project management. Since 2013 working as an EU project manager at the Centre for Social Innovation in Vienna. Since 2016 actively involved in the EU-Eastern Partnership dialogue as a Young European Ambassador. Since 2018 member of the youth board of the Vienna based think tank PCC (Policy Crossover Center).

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