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Commentary | 7 April 2014

The EU and the Eastern Partnership: whose backyard is it anyway?

Almost 40 years ago the nations of Europe agreed in the Helsinki Final Act to respect each other’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and choice of political system. By invading Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, President Putin has violated all these principles. This has profoundly destabilising implications for all the countries that lie between Russia and the European Union. The EU should help its neighbours to strengthen their independence and to emulate the political and economic successes of Central Europe. It should turn the Eastern Partnership into a path to membership for those that want it.

The Eastern Partnership currently links six countries – Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine – which from the outset were too disparate for the EU to devise a single coherent set of policies for them. Belarus was already under EU sanctions for its human rights abuses and rigged elections when the Partnership was launched in 2009. Azerbaijan’s human rights record was at least as bad as Belarus’s, but it was too important to Europe’s energy security to be sanctioned.

The remaining four countries, however, all saw themselves as part of the EU’s economic and political space. Russia, which declined the chance to be part of the Eastern Partnership, was initially relaxed as its neighbours ground through the mind-numbing technicalities of negotiating EU Association Agreements. But in 2013, Putin decided that he did not like the implications of former Soviet states adopting Western European standards and joining a huge free trade area without Russia. He began to use a mixture of threats and bribes to disrupt the efforts of the four states to reach agreements with the EU.

The EU had never intended the Eastern Partnership as a geopolitical project. It did not have an answer when Putin obstructed exports from Ukraine and then offered a large loan and cheap gas to President Viktor Yanukovych in return for his not signing the EU Association Agreement. The Ukrainian people, however, responded on Europe’s behalf. When Yanukovych fled the country, the interim government restated their intention to sign the Association Agreement as soon as possible.

The EU would rather that Russia shared its view that stable, prosperous and pro-EU neighbours are better than weak, impoverished but pro-Moscow neighbours. But as long as Putin takes the opposite view, the EU needs to defend its clear interest in having neighbours which share its values and its ways of doing business.

By annexing Crimea, Putin has made clear his view that the sovereignty of states like Ukraine is limited. The EU, as a promoter of the international rule of law, but also an organisation that calls Russia a ‘strategic partner’, faces an uncomfortable choice: should it go along with Putin’s violation of international norms and preserve its relationship with Moscow; or should it support its neighbours’ right to choose their economic and political orientation, even if that involves confronting Russia?

Europe should uphold its values. It should focus its political attention and its financial and technical support on those countries that see their destiny in the Union, rather than dealing with all six countries as a bloc. The EU has already said that it does not see the Association Agreement with Ukraine as “the final goal in EU-Ukraine cooperation”. It should now say explicitly that EU membership is the final goal for Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova; and it should back up words with action. The Eastern Partnership should become a project driven by a political vision of Europe’s future, rather than by the technical advantages of harmonised product standards.

All three countries have far to travel. In the aftermath of a revolution, with Crimea occupied and the economy in a mess, Ukraine will require a huge effort from the EU and the international financial institutions if the new authorities are to turn it around. Building political consensus for difficult and painful but essential reforms will require leaders who are accepted in all parts of Ukraine; a government which establishes popular trust through transparency (in contrast to its corrupt predecessors); and police and courts which uphold the rule of law, not the interest of the highest bidder.

Georgia has shown that it is possible for a former Soviet country to re-orient itself away from Moscow successfully. Following the 2008 war with Russia and Moscow’s trade sanctions on major Georgian exports, only 6 per cent of its exports go to Russia, but it has managed to keep its economy growing at a healthy pace. Thanks to the pipelines from Azerbaijan which cross its territory, it is not dependent on Russia for energy. By the standards of the region, it is relatively uncorrupt and open to foreign investment. But it has an inexperienced government and still needs help to strengthen the rule of law.

Moldova is fragile. It relies on Russia for its gas. Remittances from Moldovans working in Russia amount to almost 10 per cent of GDP. Russia has blocked exports of Moldovan wine – a significant blow to the Moldovan economy. The separatist enclave of Transnistria has already asked Moscow to admit it to the Russian Federation. Moldova’s pro-European coalition government faces a strong challenge from the pro-Russian Communist Party at elections later this year. The EU has opened its markets to Moldovan goods to compensate for the loss of Russian markets, and a pipeline to Romania will eventually reduce the importance of Russian gas. The EU is making it easier for Moldovans to travel to the EU. All these things will help, over time. But in the interim, Chisinau will need intensive political, technical and economic assistance.

It is tempting to accept that Eastern Partnership countries are part of Russia’s backyard and subject to a Russian veto on their foreign relations. But they are part of Europe’s backyard too, and their people have the same rights as other Europeans to choose their future. Their wish to join Europe should remind existing EU members that the European project is about more than the Eurozone crisis; it is about peace, freedom and prosperity for the whole continent.


Ian Bond is Director of Foreign Policy at the Centre for European Reform. He writes here in a personal capacity.

The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges of our time.