Remember the Eastern Partnership? Launched in a flurry of ambiguous optimism in 2009, the European Union’s attempt to reach out to Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine still staggers on, with a summit in Brussels on 24 November as the next point on a now somewhat threadbare calendar. In the run-up to that came a high-level conference in September, sponsored by Germany’s Konrad-Adenauer Stiftung, in Tbilisi and at the political foundation’s guest house on Italy’s Lake Como.
Despite Russian aggression and internal political difficulties, Georgia and Ukraine are still broadly on track to closer integration with the EU, having gained visa-free travel and wide-ranging free trade agreements. Their societies are consolidating, even though the elites may be corrupt, incompetent or stuck in the past. The ride will continue to be bumpy, but the direction of travel is clear. As was clear from our discussions, these countries are not just takers but givers: sources of security expertise and of fervent commitment to European values.
Also encouraging is that the United States remains a reassuring presence in the region. Kurt Volker, the special envoy to the conflict in Ukraine, is notably able and energetic. A decision on increased military aid to that country’s armed forces is inching closer—and Russia’s latest suggestion about UN peacekeepers perhaps shows that the Kremlin is tiring of the conflict. Washington has excellent ambassadors in Tbilisi and elsewhere. Vice President Mike Pence made a stirring speech in Georgia during his trip to the region last month.
Bad news, though, is rather more plentiful.
Azerbaijan is mired in autocracy and corruption, Armenia and Belarus are under Russia’s thumb and Moldova, the poorest country in Europe, is crippled by a political deadlock between a pro-Russian president and a pro-Western government. Many outside powers that used to add political impetus to Euro-Atlantic integration are mostly distracted or absent. The EU’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, has not been to Kyiv since 2015. The EU still flinches at an explicit discussion of eventual membership for its eastern neighbors—even though Article 49 of the Lisbon Treaty clearly states: “Any European State which respects the values referred to in Article 2 and is committed to promoting them may apply.” Poland’s government unhelpfully fails to match talk with action. Germany seems to have got cold feet, at least for now, about any further talk of enlargement.
The Eastern Partnership’s underlying problem is that it suffered at birth from its mixed parentage. Was the aim to park the EU’s troublesome neighbors permanently in a halfway house, or was it to help them into the waiting room for membership? Was it a way of softening the EU’s differences with Russia, or making it clear that the Kremlin’s sphere of influence stops at its borders?
The partnership has plenty of room for tweaks (perhaps concentrating a bit more on Belarus, and being tougher on Azerbaijan, which is now far more repressive).
But the clear need is to reboot the Eastern Partnership with a new political message. It should be practical and credible rather than ambitious: Russia is good at calling the West’s bluff when it senses a lack of commitment.
One participant suggested that membership of the European Economic Area would be a good interim goal. That offers free trade and access to the single market, with (broadly) free movement of people, but without membership of the EU’s two decision-making structures, the European Council and Parliament. It could also involve access to EU pre-accession structural funds and support for institution-building. After a few years of development in that framework, full membership would look much more plausible.