How will the European Union approach the Eastern Partnership countries in the upcoming decade? The Association for International Affairs and Visegrad Insight describe possible scenarios and suggest an optimal approach.
On 19 March 2020, the European Commission presented its vision for the future of the Eastern Partnership after 2020. In addition to a strong emphasis on the economy and benefits for the citizens of Eastern Europe, the Commission communication also sets out new priorities of digitisation and combating climate change.
The Commission came up with a new approach to promote the resilience of six Eastern European countries but refused to engage in the debate offering a stronger political association or any political vision for the region in the future. This remained a challenge for the European Parliament and the Member States in the coming weeks and months.
A whole number of actors shared their criticism, given the low emphasis on the basic principles of cooperation and European values, which in the past provided the basic framework for cooperation with the EU.
In the Commission’s communication, the principles of democracy and human rights, the rule of law and fight against corruption or the support for independent media and civil society were without significant hierarchy in between finance and banking operations or the new domain of public health protection on the list of Commission´s priorities.
A pragmatic scenario
While this is a much less ambitious and more technical approach, it might be the most realistic one, given the current situation in the EU. It closely corresponds to the first of the “Pragmatic Integration” scenario of the newly published report Eastern European Futures. Scenarios for the Eastern Partnership 2030.
The research conducted by Visegrad Insight in cooperation with the Association for International Affairs (AMO) offers three other possible scenarios for the development of the Eastern Partnership beyond 2020. These illustrate how easily the EU foreign policy can fall victim to an aggressive Russia or a hypothetical EU-Russia agreement over the heads of our Eastern European partners.
In the worst-case scenario, the EU would be preoccupied with its domestic problems and further disintegrate, NATO would be paralyzed too by Turkey and the isolation of the United States. This would give Russia a free hand in the Eastern Neighborhood and pursuing its vision for the region. This would mean a restoration of the Soviet Union 2.0, which would absorb neighbouring states using economic, political and if necessary also military coercive means.
Such an outcome, of course, would be a disaster for countries such as Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova, which have for a long time resisted Russia and have signed association agreements with the EU in the past.
Concretely, this scenario would include marginalisation of the pro-European forces within the three associated countries, and a growing influence of the pro-Russian clique of politicians seeking to “normalise” relations with a large and economically significant neighbour.
What can be done?
So, what should the EU do and change in its Eastern Partnership policy in the future to escape the catastrophic scenario?
Firstly, it must avoid any bilateral agreements with Russia over the heads of the Eastern Partners, which, would throw the region in instability and internal chaos, opposite to the EU’s original objectives of promoting stability, security and prosperity in the region.
Secondly, the last “Civic Emancipation” scenario needs to be closely analysed and followed. It is built on the logic of managing the mutual expectations and supporting pro-reform and democratic circles within the Eastern Partnership countries. This option is based on continuing economic cooperation and supporting civil society as well as pro-democracy political circles in individual states with financial and technical means, but at the same time realistically putting the perspective of EU membership off the table for the foreseeable future.
With the help and support of the local population, as the case in Central Europe in the 1990s when returning “back to Europe”, local elites and civil society must implement often painful reforms and modernise their countries and raise the standards of living their citizens because it is important for themselves (and not their partners in the West).
An ideal scenario
Therefore, if we were to outline an ideal scenario for the successful development of the Eastern Partnership policy until 2030, it is likely to include both elements of “Civic Emancipation” and the EU’s ambitious approach to the region summarised in the first scenario.
However, before the forthcoming Eastern Partnership high-level summit in Brussels, which is supposed to be hosted by the Croatian Presidency in mid-June 2020, there needs to be a better articulated political narrative and a serious offer to develop relations with the Eastern partners in the next decade.
We already know that the European Parliament and the many EU Member States, especially from Central and Eastern Europe, are interested in keeping the Eastern Partnership high on the EU agenda and deepening the mutual relations not only economically but also politically.
However, it will also be crucial to convince the rest of the Member States that this investment will pay off in the future and bring prosperity and stabilisation of the Eastern Neighborhood not only to Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova’s neighbours but to all the EU members from Portugal to Finland.
If the EU stands united, despite the challenge of pandemic COVID-19 and different priorities, and ambitious in its approach after 2020, at the end of the upcoming decade, we can see Eastern Europe that is well-prepared for deeper political integration to the EU, along the lines of a UK´s agreement, and a full-fledged form of economic integration into the EU’s Single Market.
It will be not only the final declaration from the Brussels Summit and presentation of the new set of priorities for the period after 2020 but also the negotiations on the new MFF until 2027, which will underpin the EU´s success in this strategic region.