EaP: Looking beyond 2020

Eastern Partnership 10th anniversary © Photo by Council of the European Union

By Daniel Szeligowski | Warsaw

It has already been 10 years since the Polish-Swedish Eastern Partnership (EaP) initiative was launched in Prague in May 2009. Since then, the EU has strengthened its relations with all six EaP countries – Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. Three of them – Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine – have signed Association Agreements (AA) with the EU, including Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreements (DCFTA), and have been granted visa-free regimes. Armenia, which initially withdrew from signing the AA, has concluded a new, less ambitious bilateral treaty: a Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement. Azerbaijan has started negotiations on a new framework agreement with the EU. Finally, bilateral talks on EU-Belarus Partnership Priorities have been launched. The EU is now the biggest trade partner for five out of the six EaP countries, and is the second biggest trade partner for Belarus only after the Russian Federation.

Gradually, however, the EaP has been losing its momentum – its transformative potential has largely run out of steam, while Russia’s revisionist policy has become increasingly problematic for both the countries concerned and for the wider region. On the one hand, the EU’s eastern neighbours are still struggling with internal problems, such as state capture, corruption and weak governance institutions. The political elites in these countries often lack the will to pursue systematic modernisation, but there is also much room for improvement when it comes to the EU’s assistance to its partners. On the other hand, the EaP states have been subject to external pressure, and even meddling, from Russia, which has not shied away from using military power to achieve its foreign policy goals, and treats these countries as within its exclusive zone of influence.

The EU has not so far formulated any comprehensive vision of its eastern policy for the period after 2020, when the ‘20 deliverables for 2020’ roadmap is due to expire. The first reason for this is that the current political situation in the EU is much less favourable to deepening relations with the eastern neighbours than was the case 10 years ago. The EU faces several new challenges, such as Brexit, trade disputes with the US and negotiations on the new multiannual budget, which have pushed discussions regarding the EaP further down the agenda. The prospect of the UK’s exit from the EU has further weakened the coalition of the member states supporting the EaP, as the British government has actively shaped EU policy towards the eastern partners, and has been very vocal about Russian revisionism in the region. The second reason is that several EU member states – including Austria, France, the Benelux states and Italy – have been rather sceptical about deepening relations with the EaP countries, either
out of fear of further EU enlargement, and/or due to their own interest in developing closer ties with the southern instead of the eastern neighbourhood.

Still, the EaP’s tenth anniversary has triggered reflections within the EU on the future of the initiative. Until now, this process has mainly been led by Poland and other like-minded countries. At the high-level conference held in Brussels in May 2019, Poland’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Jacek Czaputowicz outlined three proposals for further strengthening cooperation with the eastern neighbours, covering legislative approximation, sectoral cooperation and institutionalisation. Czaputowicz suggested establishing an EaP secretariat, launching a rotating EaP presidency and creating a Regional Economic Area for the partner countries. The discussion will gain momentum after the new European Commission is sworn in, with a view to working out concrete ideas before the planned EaP summit in 2020.

Below are presented some detailed recommendations for the development of the EaP in the medium term, which may serve as a basis for this discussion. These have been prepared by a team of experts from the Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM), who have analysed the partner countries’ expectations, the political restrictions within the EU, as well as other EU integration models with third states.

General assumptions

In the coming years, the success of the EaP will be measured by the pace at which the partner states implement the agreed EU acquis. This requires considerable effort, both from the partner countries to conduct reforms, and from the EU to assist with their implementation, but is matched neither with prospects for membership perspective, nor structural funds. In order to facilitate reforms, the EU needs to come up with a new offer which would encourage those countries to cooperate and engage in the EaP. The short-term goal should be to assist the associated countries – Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine – as well as Armenia in implementing the bilateral agreements signed with the EU, while concluding the framework agreements currently being negotiated with Azerbaijan and Belarus. This should be accompanied by deepened sectoral and investment cooperation with all of the EaP countries.

The EU should adopt a more partner-like approach towards its eastern neighbours, which would better reflect the needs of these countries. This could entail meeting the expectations of the three associated countries in terms of deeper political cooperation; adjusting the financial assistance to the partner countries so that it better fits their priorities and is based on more realistic conditions; and focusing more on cooperation in those areas which bring direct and tangible results and benefits to the societies in the region. On top of that, it will be important to improve the EU’s communication policy within the EaP states, including activities undertaken on a local scale, as well as support given to smaller NGOs in the regions.

The new offer should not go beyond the current EaP framework, but should rather complement it and respect its principles, such as differentiation and ‘more for more’ (more assistance for more reforms). The four thematic divisions adopted at the EaP Riga summit in 2015 – economy, governance, connectivity, society – should be maintained. The EU’s support for democracy, good governance, and civil society should also remain an important pillar. However, the EU could make a clearer distinction between the associated and non-associated countries, and propose a special, additional offer for the former which would still fit the overall EaP framework, and thus be open to the latter in the future.

A special offer for the EaP associated countries

The three associated countries – Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine – have long been advocating for greater differentiation within the EaP. Having signed the AA/DCFTA with the EU, they committed themselves to adopt a large chunk of the EU acquis, which allowed them to receive extended access to the EU internal market. However, this has not been matched with deeper political cooperation. In fact, after these countries were granted visa-free regimes with the EU, there is not much left on the table which would be of considerable added value to them. Further political integration with the EU would be hard to achieve, given that some EU member states strongly oppose it. Yet the EU could fill the gap by offering the associated countries a higher political profile for their bilateral relations with the EU, better-adjusted financial assistance, and enhanced mutual cooperation between the associated countries themselves.

Firstly, the EU could meet the associated countries’ expectations by launching a new political format gathering Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine and EU member states. On the one hand, it would be possible within this framework to hold separate meetings of the foreign ministers of the EU and the associated countries ahead of the main EaP meetings, and/or sectoral meetings between EU commissioners and relevant ministers from the associated countries. On the other hand, ministers from the associated countries would be allowed to participate in the EU sectoral councils, such as the Foreign Affairs Council, if there was a discussion on the EU policy towards a given state, except when EU legislative proposals or positions were to be adopted. Another option could be to involve officials from the associated countries in the European Commission’s working groups in cases related to the DCFTAs with these countries. This format of cooperation would complement the principle of differentiation, while at the same time it would remain open for the remaining EaP countries provided they decide to deepen their relations with the EU, which they would be free to determine  on their own.

Secondly, the EU could develop separate DCFTA roadmaps for the associated countries, which would indicate specific objectives to be achieved and precise indicators to be fulfilled in the medium term. This would allow for better prioritisation and adjustment of EU assistance, since for the time being it is not clear which of the existing documents constitute the main point of reference, nor whether and to what extent they complement each other. The risk is that the associated countries may not be interested in introducing specific indicators, since this would put more responsibility on their governments. However, in order to minimise that risk, the roadmaps could be coupled with a new financial instrument which would support the implementation of the DCFTA’s provisions. The necessary financial resources could be obtained from the European Neighbourhood Policy’s eastern regional programme, or from bilateral national envelopes for the associated countries.

Thirdly, the EU could encourage the associated countries to create a new regional cooperation format, similar to the Visegrád Four, which would help them present a unified position within the EaP. Until now, cooperation between the three states has been only limited, and each of them has presented their opinion separately, which has often led to their proposals being rejected by the EU. The EU could allocate a small budget for the activities of such a group, which for example would cover the commissioning of expert opinions or evaluations of the implementation of the DCFTA provisions.

A new agenda for all six EaP countries

In parallel to presenting an additional framework for the three associated countries, the EU should work out a new, updated agenda for all six EaP states, which would strengthen the EU’s transformative potential in the eastern neighbourhood. Priority should be given to economic and investment cooperation, with a view to triggering economic growth and development, as the citizens in the region primarily suffer from low standards of living. Security should play a stronger role, owing to the growing aggressiveness of Russia in the region, especially as Russian subversive and destabilisation activities affect all six EaP countries, regardless of their foreign policy preferences. The EU should also pay more attention to the civil societies in the countries concerned, since the focus has so far mainly been on dialogue with the governments, which has made it increasingly difficult to get public support for reforms.

We propose that the updated EaP agenda should be based on three pillars, or three partnerships: Partnership for Investment, Partnership for Security, and Partnership for Citizens.

Partnership for Investment

While the EaP countries have been in dire need of investment, their attractiveness to investors is still relatively low. One of the reasons is serious infrastructure shortages, which hamper inflow from foreign investors. The EU could partially offset this negative factor by increasing financial funds for key infrastructure projects in the region, especially in transport, which would improve the investment attractiveness of the Eastern Neighbourhood and at the same time be beneficial for EU companies. Given the planned increase in the next multiannual budget for the neighbourhood area, such funds could be allocated at the expense of the EaP countries’ national envelopes. Possible options would include extending the mandate of the European Investment Bank to the EaP countries, to establish a special trust fund merging different sources of financing, or to create an intergovernmental fund for infrastructure projects. A separate fund for infrastructure would not only increase the visibility of EU actions in the region, but also help attract other donors, whose contributions would guarantee their impact on decisions. Additionally, the EU could introduce an option allowing for financing infrastructure projects through cross-border cooperation programmes covering the EaP countries, which might be further supplemented with sources coming from the Cohesion Fund in the scope of EU regional policy.

On the other hand, the EU could boost investment in the region by helping the EaP countries to better absorb the funds. To this end, the EU could adjust its technical assistance mechanisms and communication, as well as increase micro-financing. Building on the ‘more for more’ approach, the EU could also offer the EaP states a specific ‘Reform Contract for Investment’, which would entail additional funds from the EU’s budget, combined with loans from European banks, in exchange for reforms to improve the business environment in the respective countries. Funding should come from unused allocations of national envelopes; but in order to be effective, the conditionality has to be realistic, and the amount of funds needs to be appropriate.

Partnership for Security

A common expectation among the EaP countries towards the EU has been cooperation in the area of security. The EU member states cannot offer their eastern neighbours any real security guarantees analogous to Art. 42(7) of the Treaty on European Union, since these only represent obligations towards other EU member states. However, the EU could help the eastern partners to counter the hybrid threats which they encounter. There are many possible options: establishing a special working group on combating hybrid threats within the EaP multilateral platform dedicated to institution-building and good governance; allowing the EaP countries to join the European Centre for Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats in Helsinki; or launching a long-term programme to strengthen critical infrastructure resilience to cyber threats. The EU could also grant its eastern neighbours observer status in the European Union Agency for Network and Information Security, or offer an exchange of information on the basis of the EU Hybrid Fusion Cell.

At the same time, the EU is in a good position to help its eastern neighbours fight Russian propaganda. In this regard it would be worth considering the appointment of a working group responsible for countering disinformation under an EaP multilateral platform dedicated to institution-building and good governance. The EU should also improve its own communication policy in the region. The EU institutions could replace their one-sided ‘broadcasting’ with real communication which is inclusive and engages the recipients, while the EU delegations in the EaP countries could strengthen their press services and organise more regular and frequent briefings explaining current EU policy towards the respective countries.

Partnership for Citizens

In the upcoming years, the EU should match its dialogue with the governments of the EaP countries with deeper cooperation with the societies in the region. The current level of EU engagement in supporting civil society – 5% of national envelopes – should be maintained. However, this could be supplemented with a clause stating that in case of a significant deterioration of democracy, rule of law, or protection of human rights in the respective country, the EU will increase the financing for civil society and business up to the level of 10% of the national envelope, at the expense of funds for the government. On one hand, this would help to avoid the transferring of unused funds by the European Commission to finance projects in another region. On the other hand, it would constitute a message to society that the EU will not abandon the people even if cooperation with the authorities is frozen.

The EU should pay more attention to small NGOs which work at the local and regional scales only. In this respect, the EU could establish several local EU contact points in the EaP countries which would be responsible for helping to submit project proposals and informing about EU financial assistance, and for creating a special grant scheme under the Civil Society Facility dedicated to strengthening the operational capacity of smaller organisations. Funds for re-granting projects could also be increased.

In order to bring direct benefits to the ordinary people in the Eastern Neighbourhood, the EU could offer a ‘Digital Agenda’ for the EaP, which would include greater assistance for the development of digital infrastructure, e-administration, and e-procurement systems, as well as support for networking in digitally innovative industries. EU support for reducing roaming charges between the EaP states and the EU would also be important. The eastern neighbours are not part of the ‘Roam Like at Home’ regime, so any reduction of roaming charges could only apply on a voluntary basis. Nevertheless, the EU could assist the EaP countries in negotiations with network operators.

Finally, the EU could further facilitate mobility and youth exchange in the region by doubling the Erasmus+ programme budget for the EaP countries in the next multiannual financial framework for 2021-27; establishing a network of Regional Youth Cooperation Offices in the EaP countries; and concluding agreements with the eastern partners on the free movement of qualified professionals and the recognition of professional qualifications. Launching an ‘Eastern Lab’, a project incubator for young leaders and/or entrepreneurs from the region, would also fit this logic.

The EaP’s long-term vision after 2020

The EaP’s tenth anniversary means that the time is ripe for starting a discussion with the associated countries – Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine – about the long-term perspective for their relations with the EU. It is still not clear what objectives they would achieve after implementing large parts of the DCFTA, which often makes them reluctant to do so. For this reason, the EU is in need of a bigger ‘carrot’ – an instrument that could motivate the three to fulfil the provisions of the AA/DCFTA. This could be the further opening of the EU internal market, which is partly reflected in the DCFTA, but would require the consent of the member states, and therefore remains under question. It would constitute a strong message to all the EaP countries, not only the associated ones, that those partners who are prepared and willing to take up additional commitments in terms of reforms could count on the EU’s assistance, even in the face of the current unfavourable political climate in the EU.

The EU could also propose the creation of a Regional Economic Area for the EaP countries, which would lead to the eastern partners’ integration with the EU as well as integration between these states themselves. Such an economic area could consist of the liberalisation of services currently not covered by the DCFTA, the further liberalisation of financial services, the inclusion of the associated countries into the Single European Payments Area (SEPA), deepening integration in the digital market, as well as the mutual recognition of professional qualifications in particular sectors of the economy. The project would be addressed to the three associated countries in the first place, but would remain open to all EaP states.

DANIEL SZELIGOWSKI is head of  the Eastern Europe Programme at the Polish Institute of International
Affairs (PISM). The article is  based on the PISM report ‘The Eastern Partnership Vision after  2020’, published in April 2019.

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