When the fantasy of European membership meets the reality of slowly implemented changes
In late 2008, at the onset of the global economic crisis which put the European Union, and especially its single currency, at the core, a new approach to Europe’s relations with its eastern neighbours was starting to take form.
It was in December when the idea of the Eastern Partnership was officially put on paper. The document, nonchalantly titled “Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament and the Council – Eastern Partnership”, laid out a comprehensive framework of cooperation between the EU and its new Eastern neighbours. In its opening paragraph, it declared that the EU “has a vital interest in seeing stability, better governance and economic development at its Eastern borders”. Hope was in the air as a renewed focus on the post-Soviet space seemed like a natural continuation of creating a Europe that was whole, free and at peace; and this was embodied in the Eastern Partnership.
The roots of the Eastern Partnership can be traced back to the 2004 EU enlargement which brought ten new members into the Union, including the four Visegrad states. The shifting of the EU border meant a shift in its neighbourhood. To reflect this shift, the updated European Union, which added Bulgaria and Romania to the fold in 2007, sought to further its success eastward.
By combining its engagement in the South, which was sought by countries like France and Italy, the European Neighbourhood Policy was starting take real form. The December 2008 European Commission communique announced the EU’s intention to launch the Eastern Partnership and was positively received – the former Czech deputy Prime Minister for European Affairs Alexander Vondra even called it “the best document the Commission has ever produced”.
The launch of the Eastern Partnership (EaP) at the Prague Summit in 2009 was symbolic in many ways. Not only was it a capital of a post-socialist state, it was also a symbol of Visegrad success. This brought subtle undertones that the EaP itself could become a Visegrad of the post-Soviet space.
There was a belief at that time that after the Rose Revolution in Georgia, the Orange Revolution in Ukraine and the Twitter Revolution in Moldova, the societies of these Eastern European states have arrived at a point where European integration was the next logical step. Further, the August 2008 war between Russia and Georgia emphasized the need for greater focus on European security in the wake of a rearmed Russia not afraid to flex its muscle.
The Best Laid Plans
The V4 success was to serve as an inspiration to the EaP. Its example as a framework of cooperation to achieve European integration (and NATO membership), was the beau ideal for the new Eastern neighbours. Hence, a heavy focus was placed not only on bilateral cooperation between the EU and the individual EaP states, but also on multi-lateral cooperation between the six Eastern Partners (Belarus, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine). A new civil society forum was created to serve as a platform to learn from each other and serve as a voice for the diverse civil society sector of the post-Soviet states.
Fast forward, nearly eight years since that December communique, and the Eastern Partnership is in disarray. Its future is uncertain, most directly affected by the events that took place, ironically as a result of the EaP, in Ukraine at the end of 2013 and throughout 2014. The multi-lateral dimension of the Eastern Partnership is practically non-existent.
In the case of Armenia and Azerbaijan it has managed to solve very little – as evidenced by the Four-Day war which broke out in April 2016 over Nagorno-Karabakh. Ukraine’s Revolution of Dignity was in part inspired by pro-European moods in the society. Yet, after the illegal takeover of Crimea by the Russian Federation and subsequent fighting in the East against Russian-supported separatists, coupled by slow implementation of much-needed reforms, Ukraine’s EU path seems to extend to a never-ending horizon.
Other EaP states like Moldova have gone from the EaP’s star pupil to complete dunce after three billion US dollars went missing from the largest banks (presumably in the hands of its most powerful oligarchs) and mass unrest may swing the mood away from EU-friendly sentiments. Georgia’s stagnate foreign policy declares pro-European integration while finding space to reconcile and build new relations with Russia. For all intents and purposes, Belarus remains practically unchanged. It would seem that the self-motivation that was characteristic of the V4 countries’ drive towards Europeanisation is seriously lacking in the EaP states.
Moreover, the EU itself is faced with its own existential predicament, requiring nearly all of its focus internally. The refugee crisis and Brexit are at the top of the list. The V4 countries themselves are playing their bit in the EU situation, some would argue negatively. As a bloc, it proclaims to offer alternative solutions for the EU’s problems.
Nevertheless, this is also drawing V4 attention away from what is happening in the EaP. This has led to a situation where there is a great risk that the post-Soviet space will drift for some time in the waters of stagnation. For some states it may even mean an eventual return into the Russian sphere of influence; naturally depending upon the geopolitical developments in the region.
There are some successes, however, and they need to be highlighted from time to time. The signing of the bilateral Association Agreements (which includes the establishment of a deep and comprehensive free trade area) with Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia should be seen as an enormous step in these countries’ EU integration. It is enough to recall that the EU had signed similar agreements with the V4 countries ten years prior to their EU accession.
We must also recognize that some positive steps in the reform process, especially in Ukraine, are being made. Progress can be seen in areas such as banking and finance, police, defence as well as minimizing corruption (though this remains one of the biggest challenges). A visa-free regime has already been implemented with Moldova and Georgia is likely next, while Ukraine is nearing the final hurdles. The V4 countries have also played a role in promoting reforms and advising in certain sectors as decentralization, energy, media and finance.
Yet, the experience of the EaP has highlighted one undeniable truth: the idea of Europeanisation is sexy; its implementation, however, is a different story. And this is the real lesson behind the V4 that was totally forgotten when it came to the Eastern Partnership. It is also important to recall that the process the V4 countries undertook in their Europeanisation was a transformation; the EaP countries are focusing on reforms. This is more than a difference in semantics. The term reform is not systematic. It implies certain tweaks in the already existing system; something that Western countries themselves undertake all the time. A transformation, on the other hand, requires a complete system change, and this change is physical just as much as it is mental.
Lastly, it goes without saying that there is no mood inside Europe to promote further integration, let alone accession. This is felt not only in the old EU states but in the new ones as well. This means that an even greater responsibility for Europeanisation lies with the EaP states. For the moment, it looks as though the small-step reform process is the only way forward. Only time will tell if this approach will be enough to achieve the desired end-result. At present, it is very difficult to be optimistic, but it does not mean all hope should be abandoned.
Adam Reichardt is the Editor in Chief of the bimonthly magazine New Eastern Europe.