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Is There a Future for the Eastern Partnership?

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Recent years radically transformed the way regional security in Europe (dis)functions. Both traditional arrangements and new mechanisms have been damaged. After ten years since initiation, the Eastern Partnership project, once the EU’s ambitious attempt to project its normative capacities, is close to a failure. A threat of Russian revisionism, already surfacing when the Eastern Partnership was launched, has now become a key determinant of political reality. 

Implications are numerous, while stakes are different. By definition, any revisionism brings in destabilization, since it challenges accepted norms and generates uncertainty. Further on, it replaces international regimes and multilateral cooperation with unilateralism and power politics. In Europe this results in a complete disagreement over security arrangements. Moreover, revisionism undermines trust and long-term cooperation while enhancing mutual fear and suspicion. That creates a completely new environment for the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP) in general, and for the Eastern Partnership (EaP) as its integral component.

Until recently the EU’s biggest bet in enhancing security has been on normative power. It implied that spreading democracy, rule of law, human rights protection, and prosperity into the neighborhood would serve best for the security of the Union itself; while the most effective way to do that would be through EU’s abilities to generate specific norms, also referred to as “European values”. Normative capacity is placed behind the ENP: the Union applies economic and financial instruments to stimulate reforms in the target countries with the view to make them more economically efficient and democratic. This policy brought about some success both in the Mediterranean and the Eastern Europe, however limited in both cases. The EaP has been offering Association Agreements for its target countries as the way of exercising normative power, de facto using those agreements as rewards for a progress in political and/or economic transformations. 

Such an approach, however, ran into Moscow’s good old fashioned geopolitical planning, according to which all EaP target countries should remain within the Russian sphere of influence and by no means could join either EU or NATO. An ambitious project of the Eurasian economic integration, launched by the Kremlin five years ago, was designed to secure Moscow’s reinstalled sphere of influence and prevent EaP target countries from signing the Association Agreements with the EU. 

Incompatibility of strategic interests became apparent, while the events in Ukraine demonstrated how much Russia is ready to pay for an attempt to revise the “rules of the game”, among which there’s still a right of any country to choose its alliances and international commitments. It is in EU’s security interests to neighbor stable, effective, and democratic states at its borders. Moscow aims at something completely opposite: weak, ineffective, corrupted, and easy controllable states in Eastern Europe. This is what the current Ukrainian crisis mostly about. 

When strategic interests collide, there can be no effective policy without a clear vision and input. The EaP should address target countries, and, most likely, Europe needs a number of individual strategies towards them, but before that it should have a strategy towards Russia. First and foremost condition for improving the EaP is to build a strategy for dealing with Moscow’s revisionism and readiness to use force for pushing it forward. That strategy should, inter alia, tell how far the EU could go in containing Russia’s revisionist claims; which issues would be non- and negotiable with the Kremlin; and how conditional would be the EU’s support for the target countries in enhancing their security. Under a best-case scenario, these countries would become contributors into such a policy.

Currently the ENP, as well as the Common foreign and security policy in general, is not designed for checking Russian assertive actions. Neither is the EaP. EU’s concentration on the normative power used to be its competitive advantage, while under a new reality, actively imposed by Russia, it will remain no more. Geopolitical considerations could disunite European countries, each of them having a different stake in Ukraine and the Eastern Europe on the whole. However, in order to prevent Europe from turning into a set of variously vectored geopolitical interests, the EU should elaborate a common geopolitical component to its security policy, no matter how modest it could be.

While preserving unity is crucial in European approach to security, some separation could be helpful in other regard. The EU needs to elaborate an individual approach to current target countries within the EaP. Addressing a set of geographically united countries is no longer meaningful. They are different in political, trade, and cultural terms, as well as in their further European aspirations. While Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova are clearly after as much European integration as possible; Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Belarus are under heavy Russian influence, while the latter two are clearly underachieving in terms of democratic standards. Five of the six target countries are by now united by the problem of the “frozen conflicts” on their territories, however have profoundly different approaches to it. 

Elaborating individual approaches to target countries would add flexibility to the EU’s strategy allowing more rapid and adequate responses to their numerous needs. Keeping all the countries in the same basket would make it easier for Moscow to slow down the European integration of each one.

The EU should also consider defining responsibility more strictly. Decisions are taken at both national and supranational levels, and not mixing them up could be helpful. To make policy more operational national level of decision-making with an emphasis over regional states, could be important. To make policy more sustainable supranational efforts are crucial. 

The EaP may be in trouble, but it can be fixed. Ukraine is certainly interested in as much effective EU’s policy in the Eastern Europe as possible. At the same time, Ukrainians should better stop asking a question on how Europe can help Ukraine. It would be better to identify what Ukraine and the EU could do together to bring security back to the continent.