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Commentary | 17 June 2020

The EU’s eastern neighbourhood demands a coherent approach. The Eastern Partnership fails to deliver.

On 18 June, leaders from the EU and the six ‘eastern partner’ countries  – Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine and Belarus – will meet to mark the launch of the next phase of the EU’s Eastern Partnership (EaP) policy, which sets out the EU’s approach to its eastern neighbourhood. It is an opportunity to ensure that the policy – first launched in 2009 – builds upon successes and is refreshed to reflect new geopolitical realities. Regrettably, the approach set out so far fails to deliver. When leaders meet this week they should commit to filling the gaps.

The stakes are high. The eastern neighbourhood is at the frontline of competition between Russia and the West. Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine all receive military assistance from the EU or NATO while facing Russian military presence within their recognised borders. Belarus and Armenia are both signatories of a Russian-led military alliance, even as Belarus and the UK conduct joint training exercises. The South Stream pipeline will carry Azerbaijani gas reserves directly to the EU, bypassing Russia as a key plank in the EU’s approach to its energy security. And the recent announcement of US oil shipments to Belarus come amidst a stand-off with Moscow over oil price adjustments. These stakes are well understood by the EU and Russia. Brussels identifies its relationship with the eastern partners as one of five key principles underpinning its Russia policy, while Sergei Lavrov has attacked the EaP as an attempt to cut Russia off from its closest neighbours. Indeed, the Kremlin has long demonstrated a willingness to respond to EaP initiatives by applying severe pressure on partner countries.

Despite this, the EaP fails to address this complex security and political context. At best, this represents a failure to live up to the EU’s ambition to be a leading player on the world stage. At worst, it risks undermining stability and exposing partner countries to unjustified but predictable pressure, heightening tensions and risking military confrontation: a risk realised in Ukraine as events leading up to the EaP’s 2013 Vilnius summit spiralled into an active and ongoing European war.

Leaders at this week’s summit must recognise these gaps and ensure that they are addressed as the details of the EaP’s implementation are hammered out in the months ahead. There are three areas in which they should start:

  1. Including a clear approach to managing EU-Russia competition in the eastern neighbourhood. Moscow has been clear in its view that the EaP as an attempt to disrupt Russia’s social, economic, and political connections with the region. The EU’s argument that its relationships with partners is no business but their own is appealing in its parsimony, but fails to meet the EU’s obligation to take seriously the impact of foreseeable policy responses from Moscow, however unjustified. In practice, the EU has taken a pragmatic approach in specific country contexts: for example, by supporting Moldovan producers faced with Russian export sanctions imposed to discourage Chisinau’s signing of an Association Agreement and tailoring agreements with Armenia to ensure they remained compatible with membership of Russia’s preferred Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). At a minimum, the EaP should provide greater predictability in how the EU would respond to Russian interventions designed to undermine its engagement with partners. That would reduce the chance of rising tensions as either side sort to out-do the other through retaliatory measures, avoid predictable scenarios from becoming crises, and enable partner countries to plan their foreign policy approaches with greater certainty. Going further, the EU could consider how to respond constructively to issues where Russia has legitimate interests: particularly in the economic sphere. This could be channelled through the EEU, where Central Asian states’ interests are also reflected.
  2. Ensure the EaP is coordinated with security assistance provided by EU states and partners. The EaP is silent on hard security, in spite of all EaP countries receiving some form of assistance from the EU or NATO allies. Accepting that it may be unrealistic to expect the EU to adopt a truly ‘full-spectrum’ strategy in such a complex strategic setting, the Commission should at a minimum ensure that a regular mechanism is in place to ensure that EaP initiatives are coordinated with security assistance programmes delivered by NATO and EU states. This will require greater involvement of member states (as well as close coordination with Washington and London) in the detail of EaP implementation, alongside efforts to overcome siloes between security sectors and the technical experts in the lead on EaP delivery. Without this, the bargain at the heart of the EaP – that partners who “do more, get more” in terms of development assistance and other benefits – is fatally undermined, as bilateral security assistance quickly compensates for losses in other areas. Moreover, given that both security and non-security engagement is seen in Moscow through the lens of great power competition coordination is essential if the EU and NATO is to properly consider Russia’s threat perception in its own planning.
  3. Attach real conditionality before deepening partnerships. The EaP claims to be building relations based on a common commitment to human rights, the rule of law and democracy. However, the track record of partner countries in these areas is poor. An overly technical approach has enabled partner countries to deepen their relationships with the EU without making real progress in these areas. The recent visa facilitation agreement signed with Belarus – following elections widely regarded to have been rigged – lends credence to the view that talk of common values is little more than a veneer on more cynical power politics. To maintain credibility as a champion of multilateralism and liberal democratic values EU leaders must be prepared to be tougher on EaP countries by tying the initiative’s benefits to real and sustainable progress on human rights and the rule of law; and to champion civil society even when this means foregoing closer relations with convenient geopolitical partners. That is the partnership which people across Europe’s eastern neighbourhood – including in Russia itself – deserve, and it is the only partnership which can provide a viable challenge to a ‘post-Soviet’ governance model which ensures the continued vulnerability of countries across Europe’s ‘eastern flank’.

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 policy challenges of our time.

Image: European leaders gather at the last Eastern Partnership Summit in 2017. Official website of President of Azerbaijan. Creative commons.