June 2020 was fruitful in events directly related to the Eastern Partnership policy development. On June 11, the EU and Eastern Partnership countries’ foreign ministers had a video conference meeting, and, on June 18, the heads of the states and governments had their meeting in the same format, though they did not dare to call it a summit, both in terms of its form and content.
Although these multilateral meetings and summits created the impression of great interest in the Eastern Partnership, at the same time, no joint statements or declarations were adopted based on their results. And in general, in early June, there was still no confidence in the summit dates, the course of preparations to the event was unclear, and it was repeatedly proposed to postpone it.
Completely logical question arises: why a video conference, not a summit? To begin with, in recent years, by various reasons Brussels could not manage to organize a full-fledged summit, even though the summit is the highest political and institutional level of the Eastern Partnership.
The previous Eastern Partnership Summit was held in Brussels back in 2017. Among other things, the declaration following its results politically secured the obligations of the member states to adhere to “The Eastern Partnership 20 deliverables for 2020” as a kind of a road map for relations with the European Union.
Following the traditional biannual cycle of the summits, the next summit was to be held in 2019. However, instead of the summit, last May we saw a high-level conference dedicated to the decade of the Eastern Partnership policy. It had many vivid speeches summing up the results, however, a joint position was not worked out neither during the event nor during the foreign ministers’ meeting preceding the conference.
It was decided to hold a fully-featured summit during the Croatian presidency in the EU Council in the first half of 2020. The EU institutions took up the task to prepare the basis for the event “on the highest level”. In March, they approved the Joint Communication of the European Commission, the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy to the European Parliament, the Council of the EU, the European Economic and Social Committee, and the Committee of the Regions of the EU – “Joint Communication: Eastern Partnership policy beyond 2020: Reinforcing Resilience – an Eastern Partnership that delivers for all” (hereinafter – Joint Communication). In May 2020, the EU Council adopted the Conclusions of the Eastern Partnership policy beyond 2020 (hereinafter – the Conclusions). However, this time, the coronavirus pandemic made its adjustments to the EU’s plans. Already in the spring, after the introduction of all restrictive and quarantine measures both by the EU countries and partner states, it became obvious that the schedule and thematic content of the contacts at the highest level would have to be reviewed.
That is why, the June video conferences, both at the level of the Ministers of Foreign Affairs of the Eastern Partnership countries (June 11) and in the format of the states and governments heads meeting (June 18), for one thing, were to create the possibility of online communication on the joint agenda important issues. For another thing, the increased EU interest in the meetings testifies to the desire of the European functionaries to demonstrate the continuity of the process of involvement in the neighbourhood policy. For example, in early June, the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell asked the main Eastern Partnership stakeholders to submit their proposals to these events agenda.
However, the EU’s reluctance to call the top-level video conference a summit was also dictated by fears that this event would not bring significant and politically important decisions, as well as an agreement to adopt a joint outcome document in the form of an Eastern Partnership declaration.
Pandemic is on the Agenda
Therefore, during the June 18 video conference with the heads of the European institutions, states, and governments of the Eastern Partnership (EU 27 + 6 partners), the main focus was on the discussion of the joint efforts to combat COVID-19, as well as proposals for Joint Communication and Conclusions regarding future EaP policies beyond 2020.
Based on the video conference outcomes, the participants noted the need for international solidarity during the pandemic and appreciated the significant support for the EU partner states.
In the context of the future Eastern Partnership development, the states’ and governments’ leaders agreed on 5 main priorities, which will form the basis for the development of new content and structuring of activities within the Eastern dimension of the neighborhood policy. In particular, they will apply to such strategic areas as:
1) sustainable and integrated economies;
2) accountable institutions, the rule of law and security;
3) environmental and climate sustainability;
4) digital transformation;
5) fair and inclusive societies.
These areas of common effort are articulated in the Joint Communication, dated March 2020. However, during the meeting, these five areas were not supported by any specific detail.
“The EU’s reluctance to call the top-level video conference a summit was also dictated by fears that this event would not bring significant and politically important decisions”
Looking forward to a “Physical” Summit in 2021
During the video conference, the heads of the states and governments agreed to postpone the offline Eastern Partnership summit till the spring of 2021. They plan that the summit will take place in Brussels during the Portuguese presidency in the EU Council.
At this “physical summit”, they are to present new roadmaps for the cooperation development within the EaP framework, and approve them according to new five priorities, which should replace the current “Eastern Partnership 20 Key Deliverables for 2020”. And this is when we can expect an approval of a new Eastern Partnership declaration, with new parameters for cooperation within the EaP policy framework. New cooperation rules for the EaP participants, in the coordinates indicated in the Joint Communication and Conclusions, should be developed under Berlin (second half of 2020) and Lisbon (first half of 2021) presidency in the EU.
At the documentary level, it should be positively noted that the program of the Trio Presidency (Germany, Portugal, Slovenia) in the EU Council in 2020-2021 clearly indicates the need to implement the ambitious policies of the Eastern and Southern Neighborhood, to assist the partners in close geographical proximity in overcoming the coronavirus-provoked crisis, as well as strengthening the overall stability of the states.
Besides, the Trio will focus on the preparation and subsequent implementation of the commitments that will be made at the upcoming Eastern Partnership Summit. Also, they will continue to implement obligations specified in the Conclusions of the EU Council on Foreign Affairs of June 2019, providing for the active involvement of the EU in the Black Sea regional cooperation.
At the same time, among the priorities of the German presidency in the Council of the European Union from July to December 2020, they pay much less attention to the EaP issues. Perhaps, the Berlin’sreluctance to actively shape the political agenda of the Eastern Partnership can explain how the important political summits schedule is formed: the video conference was held in June under the presidency of Croatia, and the “physical summit” was postponed until the Portuguese presidency in the EU Council, leaving Germany without any important political Eastern Partnership milestone. However, it would be an exaggeration to assume that a new Eastern Partnership framework development will be suspended or will lose pace in the second half of 2020.
“Perhaps, the Berlin’s’ reluctance to actively shape the political agenda of the Eastern Partnership can explain the high-level political summits schedule formation”
How Ambitious the New Eastern Partnership will be beyond 2020?
Given that the heads of the states and governments, who took part in a video conference on June 18, did not present any final joint declaration or statement based on its results, the Joint Communication documents, dated March 2020, and the Conclusions of the EU Council, dated May 2020, remain to be the main communication documents for the new medium-term Eastern Partnership framework development.
At the technical level, the documents mentioned above are a step forward in identifying new areas of cooperation for the Eastern Partnership members. The Joint communication gained a new direction in public health in the context of combating COVID-19, and the European Green Agreement is a red thread on both documents.
New progressive vectors for the application of the EU and partner states’ joint efforts will not be disclosed here in detail again since they take a great part of the analytical and expert reviews already written. Given that the Joint Communication was based on the results of the structured consultations on the EaP future, it takes into account the specific wishes of the partner states. This allows us to consider documents as a mutually acceptable basis for the further development of substantive content for the EaP Summit decisions. However, it is advisable to mention once again those political decisions of the EU members that do not allow to talk about high expectations from the future summit in Brussels in 2021.
The documents language is disappointing in the context of determining the European prospects of the associated states. The Joint Communication text refers to politically weaker declarations of the EaP summits, does not mention association agreements, which directly speak of the European aspirations of the signatory states. Also, one cannot ignore the absence of references to supporting the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the partner states, which, accordingly, may indicate a very low joint political denominator among 6 partner states.
And, which was obviously predictable, it is due to the lack of the agreement among the EU members, that in both documents there was no room for enhanced cooperation between the EU and the associated partners, Eastern Partnership+.
Hopefully, some of the mentioned political obstacles to the development of the Eastern Partnership policy will be resolved during the preparation for the Eastern Partnership Summit in 2021. But besides active work within the framework of the intergovernmental platforms and panels, to which the EU casts an active role in filling of the EaP new strategic priorities, Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova should pay special attention to the demonstration of the closer sectoral integration and partners’ full access to the EU internal market benefits to their European partners.