Can the EU strengthen its relationships with its Eastern Partnership countries and encourage them to drift toward the West if it hasn’t established a unified and most importantly – firm – policy regarding Russia? It seems like a nigh impossible mission, Vytautas Bruveris wrote in lrytas.lt
In Brussels, Vilnius and other EU capitals, currently, there are intense discussions on how to breathe new life into the so-called EU Eastern Partnership Programme – relations with the Union’s Eastern border.
In these discussions, the thinking is becoming dominant that we must seek to further strengthen relations with another three members of the programme – Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia. It is also seemingly recognised that the other three countries of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Belarus have been fully incorporated by Russia into its sphere of influence.
However, in this tumultuous cycle of discussion, only rarely and timidly do fundamental questions emerge, of which there are at least two.
First – can the EU grant new impetus to Eastern Partnership without finally bracing itself and beginning to pressure Russia?
Second – can the EU continue to attract its Eastern neighbours without clearly and tangibly promising them membership as soon as they are worthy?
Lithuanian politicians, who seek to stoke such discussions, agree that without answers to these questions, EU Eastern policy will never gain a firm basis.
Of six, three remain?
This autumn, the EU marks a decade since the launch of the Eastern Partnership Programme. However, this anniversary is relatively bitter.
“3 and 3” or “3.5 and 2.5” – that’s how the situation is typically described regarding the 6 country group, which should be involved in this partnership.
Armenia, Azerbaijan and Belarus would appear to only be formally viewed real European Union partners because both their domestic political regimes and their actual geopolitical orientation has made them into Russian accessories.
That said, in the Armenian case, some exceptions can be made following a revolution that wiped out a former corrupt government.
Meanwhile, Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia are the countries that have drawn the closest to the EU, even while their circumstances leave little room for optimism. These are still countries hanging between Russia and the West.
One of many recent discussions on the future of Eastern Partnership, which are held in the EU as of late, was also held in the hard of the Union – in the European Parliament.
It was organised by Lithuanian Conservatives, who belong to the most considerable EP political power – the European People’s Party, namely former right-wing leader and prime minister Andrius Kubilius, as well as former Minister of National Defence Rasa Juknevičienė.
A. Kubilius, who is seeking to become one of the leading builders of support for Ukraine in European institutions, has become one of the leaders of the European Parliament and Armenian, Azerbaijani, Moldovan, Georgian and Ukrainian parliamentary assembly.
Hope to give the region momentum
A discussion led by A. Kubilius at the European Parliament featured the participation of both senior EU officials, who curate Eastern Partnership affairs, and international policy experts from various analytical centres.
The talks all revolved around a document, which was the pretext for the discussion and was prepared by the Lithuanian right-wing – the Eastern Partnership “Trio Strategy”.
The name itself already implies that the strategy proposed to the EU is to consolidate its efforts in the East on increasingly close relations with Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine.
Partnership with these countries, based on the initiative, should focus on reform and investment projects in the areas of law enforcement, combatting corruption, civil service, economics, energy, infrastructure and regional cooperation.
All this cooperation should be curated by a “coalition” of countries, who will chair the EU over the coming decade and the entire geopolitical process should be akin to an equally exclusive EU cooperation with the Western Balkan states.
Both A. Kubilius and others in the discussion say that such a turn is dictated by reality – the EU’s relations with, for example, Belarus cannot be the same as with Ukraine or Georgia.
According to A. Kubilius, closer cooperation with one side of the Eastern Partnership camp can nonetheless help achieve the programme’s primary goals.
According to the Lithuanian MEP, if three countries thrive and move toward the EU, this could become a good example not only to the remaining three but even for Russia itself or more precisely – for its public.
This was the former Conservatives leader’s repeat of the idea, which was the foundation of the old Eastern Partnership Programme – how this policy is not only for stabilising the Eastern neighbourhood of the Union but also for nudging Russia toward a “democratic transformation”.
Avoid aiming at Moscow
The other discussion participants, of course, praised the idea itself, but at the same time were wary of the ambiguous geopolitical horizons.
Lucas Devigne, an official from the EU’s “Ministry of Foreign Affairs”, its External Action Service, who is responsible for the Union’s relations with the Eastern Partnership countries, Central Asia and Russia, repeatedly emphasised that the EU’s neighbours themselves must finally start combatting corruption.
He stated that it is namely corruption in these countries that is one of the main reasons as to why EU politicians and voters are increasingly uncertain about these countries.
However, Wilfried Martens Research Centre expert Tomi Huhtanen reminded that not only the EU and all of the West is facing challenging times, but Russia is also as well.
Its regime is increasingly losing public support at home, and even military posturing fails to return it.
A formerly senior NATO official Jamie Shea stated that Eastern Partnership should not be a “niche activity” of Eastern and post-Soviet EU member states, but a “vital and fundamental interest of all of the EU”.
J. Shea also noted that the divisions between East and West that remain since the fall of the Berlin Wall continue to weaken the entire Union significantly.
But what of other essential matters – EU membership prospects for the Eastern neighbours and EU-Russian relations?
After all, the EU’s fear to promise membership for Ukraine, Moldova or Georgia because this would ultimately anger Russia is one of the central ambiguities and weaknesses of Eastern Partnership.
Lack of unity
Another, even more, significant weakness is a lack of a clear, consistent, unified and firm EU policy toward the Russian regime.
Some experts and politicians wonder – how can you expect a successful progression of Eastern partners toward the EU without directly pressuring Russia, which is seeking to draw the partners to its side.
The means of such pressure have long been apparent. It is ever heavier and broader sanctions, aimed not only at the regime’s elite, but entire economic sectors in the country.
Only a few discussion participants noted that one of the core necessities is a consolidated and firm Russia policy and even then – very laconically.
It’s natural because, considering the EU’s current circumstances, it would be naïve to expect such policies.
The most notable symptom of this is French President Emmanuel Macron’s talks about NATO’s “brain death”, the necessity to create a “unified Europe” with the Russian regime and a halt to EU expansion processes.
However, politicians seeking to consolidate political will regarding Eastern Partnership assure that analogous discussions on Russia policy are in the near future
A different direction to Macron’s
MEP Rasa Juknevičienė
“I always repeat that the lack of a clear, consistent and united Western policy toward Russia is a crucial problem.
We must continuously talk about it and we will do so here at the European Parliament quite soon when we organise a forum to support democratic powers in Russia.
Unlike E. Macron, we believe that friendship with the Kremlin regime, which does not equate to Russia itself, only reduces the possibility for any positive change in that country.
Thus in any case, a unified and constituent position regarding the regime must not be some “friendship”.
MEP Andrius Kubilius
“The fact that there is almost no talk about a Russia policy as an integral part of Eastern Partnership and overall as a necessity is eloquent.
Why is there more enthusiasm when talking in Europe about Western Balkans integration than when talking about Eastern Partnership? This is because Kyiv, Kishinev and Tbilisi are closer to Moscow. However, I see that among European politicians, an understanding is forming that we must finally establish a policy, which would be unlike what the French president proposes and the success of Eastern Partnership is a useful instrument for it. After all, obstructing the Russian regime and encouraging democratic changes in that country are part of an essential process on which everything else hangs.”