ZOiS Spotlight 25/2020

The Eastern Partnership at risk of falling into oblivion

by Julia Langbein 24/06/2020
Charles Michel, President of the European Council, at the press conference of the Eastern Partnership video conference on 18 June. © European Union


Let’s start with the positives. The Virtual Eastern Partnership Summit between the European Union (EU) and the six partner countries – Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine – on 18 June 2020 produced one key outcome: an agreement to meet in person at a summit in March 2021. On that occasion, a joint declaration will be adopted on the five core policy objectives for the Eastern Partnership (EaP) post-2020. With regard to the partner countries, these are: 1) resilient, sustainable and integrated economies; 2) the rule of law and security; 3) environmental and climate resilience; 4) digital transformation; and 5) fair and inclusive societies (by strengthening civil society, an independent media and civil rights, etc.).

The next few months are an opportunity to underpin these core objectives with firm targets. These should be capable of producing tangible outcomes for the populace in the partner countries, but should also be embedded in a strategy that takes into account the limitations on both sides. On the part of the partner countries, the main hindrance is the presence (albeit in varying degrees) of reform-resistant elites, while for the EU, it is a lack of capacity to adequately support these ambitious goals.

Stronger EU engagement out of self-interest

Despite all the official pronouncements from Commission President Ursula von der Leyen during the Virtual Summit about the strategic importance of the EaP, few EU Member States see the EaP as a priority. Against the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting economic crisis, the majority of national governments are unlikely to be willing to commit the level of support that the EaP countries need to achieve anything like the ambitious objectives for the EaP post-2020 and strengthen partners’ economic, political and social resilience in the years ahead.

The EU’s limited engagement – especially in regard to Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, which signed association agreements with the EU in 2014 – should be viewed with concern. Granted, some successes were achieved in the last ten years in the field of trade relations, energy security and the expansion of people-to-people contacts, but this progress is not irreversible. Ultimately, these three countries plus Armenia are a testing ground for competing development models. Failure by the EU to make headway in the region increases the appeal of integration offers from Russia, China or Turkey. The EU Member States, therefore, should not see the task of supporting successful political and economic development, in line with the core objectives mentioned above, as a form of altruism. The fact is the EU has a relationship of (security-related) political and economic interdependence with the EaP countries, albeit one skewed in the EU’s favour.

Against this background, it is entirely in the EU’s own interests to set new priorities for the Eastern Partnership, without losing sight of the aforementioned limitations on the partners’ side but also the limits of the EU itself. Notwithstanding all the other current challenges, the German government should remain mindful, during its Council Presidency, of the need to reorient the EaP ahead of the “physical” summit next March. This is especially important given that in January 2021, the Presidency will pass to Portugal, which is unlikely to show much interest in the topic.

The EaP post-2020

A credible prospect of EU accession for Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine would certainly be a major incentive in strengthening local drivers of reform in these three partner countries and intensifying the EU’s engagement. However, the situation in the four Western Balkan candidate countries shows that at present, the EU can do little more than engage in rhetoric about a non-credible prospect of accession, which cannot produce these positive effects. Against this background, the reorientation of the EaP beyond 2020 should be about differentiation and prioritisation first and foremost.

Differentiation: Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine have signed association agreements with the EU, which include provisions on the establishment of a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area. They thus face different challenges from those confronting Armenia, let alone Belarus and Azerbaijan. The three associated countries have decided to adopt a large number of EU rules, which can provide a point of orientation for their national reform pathways but pose major challenges for these countries at the same time. In the field of competition law, for example, all these countries are committed to broad alignment of their state aid policies with EU law. This is sensible in order to protect the state from capture by corrupt elites, but it also confronts the three countries with the challenge of changing existing mechanisms to promote their domestic industries’ competitiveness. Consequently, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine are calling for a EU+3 format for the planning of future cooperation. This four-way format already exists in the field of trade policy but should be extended to other areas such as the rule of law, energy, climate, transport, mobility, security and competition. Likewise, the creation of a mechanism similar to the Support Group Ukraine for Georgia and Moldova would be a positive move.

Prioritisation: The Joint Communication of 18 March 2020 on the Eastern Partnership  proposes a raft of ambitious objectives against what is likely to be a pared-down financial framework for 2021-2027. These goals include the EaP countries’ integration, as far as possible, into the European Green Deal, digital transformation, the independence of the judiciary and public administration reform – all of which, of course, are highly desirable goals. At the same time, stronger prioritisation – taking into account the level of development, the capacities of partner countries (and the EU) and possible pushback from reform-resistant elites – is needed if real outcomes are ultimately to be achieved. For example, research studies on support for economic development show that some of the core objectives for the future EaP, especially in relation to the three associated countries, can be realised through a sectoral approach that brings together public and private actors, including at local and regional level. Efforts to promote ecologically and economically sustainable production chains, an effective public administration, development of human capital and the expansion of digital services such as e-commerce should therefore be focused initially on reaching targets in strategic economic sectors and on forming sectoral/regional clusters. They can then serve as lighthouse projects, with potential for replication in other sectors.

Julia Langbein is a senior researcher at ZOiS and leads the research area ‘Political economy and integration’.