Catch-22: The EU Eastern Partnership Summit

Next week, starting 28 November, the Third Eastern Partnership Summit of the European Union will be taking place in Vilnius. The Eastern Partnership (EaP), a vital part of the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP), was established in its current form in 2009 and led to an intensification of political contacts between the EU and its six Eastern partner countries (Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Moldova, Belarus and Ukraine). The ultimate goal of the EaP, at least for the moment, is to get the partners to sign new types of association agreements that will give them more extensive access to the EU’s single market and allow for less bureaucratic visa processes. Not only would these association agreements constitute effective means to stimulate economic growth in the “Eastern Neighbourhood”, they are the best idea the EU has had to promote stability and democracy in its immediate neighbourhood, ensuring the creation of a buffer zone at its borders.

Providing market access and support to eventually becoming European style democracies might be a nice prospect, but it represents a “soft power strategy”, and pales in comparison to the “hard power strategy” another involved party may impose: Russia. Feeling threatened by the EU’s advance into post-soviet territory, Moscow applies the thumbscrews to its former republics, threatening with trade bans and higher prices for gas. The Russian government uses terms like “a new Cold War” and “neo-imperialism” to describe the European association agreements. Having to face the economic consequences of Russian retaliation in exchange for better access to the European markets is a risk the Eastern Partnership countries are hesitant to take. Armenia already caved under the pressure, and announced in September that it would join Russia’s customs union instead. Since trade rules are incompatible, it is impossible to join both groups simultaneously.

While the new association agreements have an all-encompassing scope and offer more than previous deals the EU proposed to its Eastern Neighbourhood did, it is understandable that governments are still hesitating. No prospect for EU candidacy is offered, and the implementation of extensive reforms required by the EU before the signing of the agreements can take place are costly – and in the end, it is more beneficial to the European Union than the states themselves. Even Georgia, after its first democratic presidential elections now claims to want to become a European democracy, isn’t too thrilled by the supposed benefits of the association agreements. The EU might offer too little support to make Russian retaliation an acceptable consequence.

The EU itself is in a difficult situation as well. All of its Eastern partner countries, especially Belarus, are still authoritarian regimes that tend to disregard human rights, democratic values and the rule of law. How much could and should the EU offer these states without losing sight of its own values and principles? The Union has profound interests in the region, that is true enough, but does the prospect of European economic expansion allow for the justification of undemocratic regimes? The association agreements are the best idea the EU has had to support democracy in its own backyard, but the concept of promoting a transition to democracy mainly through economic cooperation agreements does not seem feasible.

Having the remaining five EaP states sign the agreements will most likely mean that Brussels will have to deal with Moscow’s reaction, and that might impose significant costs on the EU. The expectations of the partner countries will probably not be met either.

Despite all doubts, it has to be said that the idea behind it all is a positive one. The association agreements need to be understood as a first step in a long-term effort to further the transition to democracy in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus.

The success of Vilnius will depend on Ukraine. The largest of the former Soviet republics is of interest to both the EU and Russia. The country has a certain bargaining power, and others might follow its example. Ukraine president, Viktor Yanukovich, isn’t a friend of Putin’s, but he is not rushing into the arms of Europe, either. Ukraine still has to implement the measures the EU demands before it can sign the agreement. These include the release of opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko from prison, so she can be treated in Western Europe for a chronic back problem. It appears Yanukovich is still waiting for both Russia and the EU to come up with better deals for the country. Whether this risky strategy will work out is questionable.

In order to make a pro-European choice for Ukraine and the rest of the EaP possible, the EU and the IMF must be ready to weather the storm that will hit the countries in effect.