Actions taken today by the EU in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis and the structure of the recovery will have a long-term effect for the Eastern Partnership region.
The latest developments in Europe, and indeed the world, surrounding the coronavirus and its aftermath paint a devastating picture for at least the short term. At the moment, governments are focused on managing the outbreak and stopping the spread as well as how to save their respective economies from total collapse.
For the countries in the Eastern Partnership – Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine – the big question will now be how much their integration with Europe can play a role in the recovery?
Is Europe capable to play an active role in the recovery of not only the EU member states but also those that are associated members and aspire to be a part of the EU?
What next for the EaP?
Even before the outbreak, many questions lay ahead of the Eastern Partnership countries. Last year we celebrated the 10th anniversary of the EaP. It was a time for reflection on what has been achieved and what we should focus on doing next. The overall reflection was mixed. Indeed there were some important successes that are thanks to the Eastern Partnership – Association Agreements, free trade agreements and visa-free regimes with the three leading states (Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova).
Critics, however, noted that the Eastern Partnership had veered from its goals of being a transformative process to focus rather on stabilisation than integration; and that differentiation among the members (in particular the three leaders versus Armenia, Azerbaijan and Belarus) makes a common approach for all six members nearly impossible.
Of course, we cannot deny that since 2009, the region of the Eastern Partnership has dramatically changed. Most notably, the illegal annexation of Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine seriously hampered progress in integration. The fact that the conflict in Donbas is unresolved, as well as the frozen conflicts in other EaP members like Georgia and Moldova, casts a dark shadow over any significant steps towards these countries becoming not just integrated associated members but eventually candidate countries of the European Union.
However, this should not deter steps towards greater integration. In fact, resolving these conflicts should be seen as a part of the wider process of Europeanisation.
Certainly, when looking at future developments for the region there will be several trends that should be monitored. Some of them are specific to the individual countries, while others are much wider. Needless to say, the engagement of the EU and other western partners will continue to be contributing factors in shaping these trends and having a positive influence on them.
The level of engagement of both sides will determine how to further integration with those EaP states that desire it.
One key trend to watch in moving the integration agenda forward will be developments on internal reforms, in particular progress on governance and the rule of law. According to European Commission’s recently released Joint Communication titled: “Eastern Partnership policy beyond 2020 Reinforcing Resilience – an Eastern Partnership that delivers for all” – the areas that are lacking the most progress are governance, the rule of law and the fight against corruption.
Recent steps taken in all three associated states have illustrated that this is the case. Moldova’s short-lived unlikely coalition of the Socialist and the pro-EU ACUM bloc collapsed in 2019 over the latter’s push for a more independent prosecutor-general and judiciary.
Earlier this year, Georgian authorities have arrested and convicted former Tbilisi mayor Gigi Ugulava, a leader of the opposition, in what many observers have called political persecution. Lastly, in Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelensky has reshuffled the government, only being six months in office, which includes replacing the position of prosecutor-general, swapping out the reformer Ruslan Ryaboshapka with Iryna Venedyktova – an official who has clashed with civil society in the past.
All of this suggests that governance and rule of law in all of the leading EaP states is on the retreat and clearly if this trend continues will create more problems for the integration agenda.
Russia’s growing interest
Another key trend to watch beyond domestic politics and the rule of law is how the geopolitical situation unfolds. This means largely the role that Russia will play in the region in the coming years and how much influence it will (or will not have).
Again, the level of engagement in the region that is played by western partners and institutions will impact this process. A recognition by the European Union that the threat of inaction or even minimal action would lead to Russia’s growing interest would be a good start.
However, if you read the European Commission’s Joint Statement referenced above on the future of the Eastern Partnership, there is no direct reference to the negative role that the Russian Federation plays in regards to these countries’ European aspirations.
Only once does it mention hybrid threats in a weak reference to potential cooperation with EaP states within the framework of the Common Security and Defence Policy: “The EU will consider providing training opportunities and capacity building to the partner countries, including on countering hybrid threats, where appropriate.”
While there should not be an over-emphasis on the geopolitical consequences of integrating with the European Union, there is a need to better understand that the Kremlin sees the Eastern Partnership as a direct geopolitical threat.
In Belarus, the least Euro-enthusiastic member of the Eastern Partnership, Alexander Lukashenko’s warming of relations with the EU has triggered retaliatory measures from the Kremlin towards Minsk.
Kremlin interest in geopolitically neutralising the Eastern Partnership can also be seen in Moldova. The authorities there, which are consolidating around the President Igor Dodon and his Socialist party, have welcomed Kremlin diplomatic gestures and financial assistance. One need not mention the security side of the equation with ongoing or frozen conflicts in all but one of the EaP states.
Hence, any success in advancing the integration agenda must not only take into account geopolitics but also have an element of cooperation in security. This can be done through strengthening partnership with NATO (which is more explicit in identifying Russia as a threat to stability in the region), but should also have elements which focus on reforms in the specific countries as outlined above.
Engagement and opportunities
As already argued, the level of engagement on behalf of the EU in the Eastern Partnership will have a profound impact. This engagement should also be much more pioneering than we have seen in the last ten years of the Eastern Partnership. Innovation in supporting reforms and the local civil society has proven quite effective.
In Ukraine, for example, the European Union took a novel approach by creating a special Support Group for Ukraine (SGUA), which integrates experts from EU member states into administrative and reform processes throughout various sectors in the country. It has helped shift the mindset of an obstinate post-Soviet bureaucracy to a more professionalized public administration. These types of proactive and innovative steps should be taken in other associated members of the EaP to enhance their integration agendas.
The EU should also be prepared for certain scenarios and understand how its level of engagement will have an effect on the course of the region. The recently released report on Eastern Partnership Futures provides an outline of four scenarios that could develop as a result of current trends and should be seen as not only a roadmap but also a warning sign.
For example, a low level of EU engagement in the region over the next ten years coupled with a more aggressive and confident Russia could lead to a scenario where the Europeanisation process loses ground or even becomes aimless.
Hence a strong pragmatic approach that is goal-oriented and which takes advantage of windows of opportunity should be the course in the short-term. This should include bringing EaP states into new EU-wide strategies and policies like the European Green Deal which, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, was the number one priority of the new European Commission.
The EU should also be willing to finally admit that the long-term objective of this integrative approach is, ultimately, membership in the EU for those countries that so desire. The windows of opportunity in this process may be opened for a very short period of time, and for the Eastern Partnership quick reaction to take advantage of such a window will be necessary.
The effects of a crisis
One such window may be currently opening now, in the COVID-19 crisis. All countries in Europe (EU members or not) will be gravely affected by this crisis, especially the economic fallout. Some in the EU have argued for a “Marshall Plan-like stimulus package to fight the dire effects of the coronavirus on the [EU’s] economies”. This stimulus package should be broadened to not only provide assistance to EU member states but its associated members as well.
Many of the post-Soviet states do not have the infrastructure to deal with the dramatic economic consequences of fighting the pandemic. China and Russia have already used the outbreak as an opportunity for its own public diplomacy and soft power efforts (Russia, for example, had provided Italy with decontamination units and army medical staff to assist in the battle against the virus).
At the same time, the economic effects will require massive aid and this is where Europe can play a strong role in supporting and integrating the Eastern Partnership states at the same time. At the end of the day, it would not only be an act of broader European solidarity but one of humanity.
Nevertheless, the future of the Eastern Partnership remains uncertain. As the headlines are dominated by the coronavirus pandemic and the oncoming economic disaster, there is little time to consider what may happen in the long term.
Yet, actions today in the midst of the crisis and the structure of the recovery will have a long-term effect. One can only hope that the EU will not forget about those Europeans outside its borders when building a strategy for our post-coronavirus world.
This may be a real chance for advancing the integration agenda.