The sad anniversary of Eastern Partnership

Hennadiy Maksak, Foreign Policy Council “Ukrainian Prism” (Kyiv, Ukraine)

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Several important events took place in May in Brussels and other capitals of the EU and partner states, aimed at summarizing and celebrating 10 years of the Eastern Partnership. In fact, the list of public and non-public reflections on these got close to a hundred by 2019. Is it worth then looking at them so closely?

Some events are worth the attention, particularly, several prepared by European institutions deserve a closer look. They show the accomplishments of the past and policy flaws, offering an outline of the new horizon for the Eastern Partnership (EaP).

In earlier practices, the aspects to celebrate and the important developments linked to the EaP region were normally brought up at EaP Summits, the top mechanism for political meetings and consultations. The EaP Summits are biannual events, gathering heads of states and governments. Nothing would seem to fit the celebration of the 10th anniversary better. Yet, an alternative was offered this time, especially as there was no desire to hold a summit this year.  

On May 13, the Council of the European Union met at the level of EU and EaP foreign ministers. On May 14, the European Commission held a high-level conference. While the ministerial meeting provided the official nonpublic element of talks and conclusion drawing, the conference focused on creating an atmosphere of celebration and the most inclusive approach for the participants. Below is how this happened.  

No declarations

The approach to the celebration of EaP’s 10th anniversary was serious, with the respective preparations on the political agenda and cultural arrangements. There were only happy emotions to share at the concert of the Brussels Jazz Orchestra with musicians from the six partner-states. Creating Together, as the concert was named, was indeed much easier than agreeing on the political agenda.

In the political dimension, EU and EaP foreign ministers held a meeting chaired by Federica Mogherini, while European Council President Donald Tusk held a working dinner with the heads of states and governments on May 13.  

Earlier experience shows that ministerial meetings are rarely a model for seeking compromise and common points. They can rather be compared to a fan of opinions, from the most cautious to the most optimistic ones. The anniversary inspired hope of a possible political breakthrough that could potentially lead to a joint declaration filled with real sense. In reality, the meeting ended ahead of the schedule and one partner-state blocked the final document.  

It was probably better that the declaration was never released. It came out too refined and devoid of accents. In his comment for the media, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin called the declaration an “empty amphora”, referring to a form with no filling. Breaking lances over the issues of territorial integrity, the prospect of EU membership and the reference to Russia as aggressor has by now become a notorious tradition.

Differentiation: a goal or a side effect?

In her final remarks, Chair Mogherini pointed out that EaP proved effective and dynamic, and it applied special approach to all partner-states based on differentiation and conditionality over the years since its launch. The impression in such circumstances is that these are the results of the EU’s inability to correctly assess the interests and needs of its partners, rather than a determined search for individual approaches.

The same feeling prevailed at the high-level conference where Jean-Claude Juncker, Federica Mogherini and Johannes Hahn spoke in a festive atmosphere about our common accomplishments while pointing out different speeds and needs. But the issue of multi-speed policy was not duly reflected in most speeches, including the ones of presidents and prime ministers of EaP countries.

One accomplishment noted by the EU bodies in this context was drafting and signing differentiated bilateral agreements with different sets of commitments and ambitions. The signed Association Agreements and Free Trade Agreements with the EU, as well as visa-free travel regimes, were listed as success stories.

When summarizing the conference, Commissioner Hahn called on the states to seek deeper cooperation with the EU through more determined implementation of the Association Agreement and the continuation of the launched reforms. The prospect of membership or dynamic application of the format of three associated EaP countries were not accented, even though it seemed perfectly logical and natural to imply that both of these proposals can seriously boost internal reforms in partner-states, as parts of the EaP policy. And there are a lot of incentives here.

While the greatest share of financial support within the EaP framework focuses on reinforcing cooperation with institutions in partner-states, the implementation of rule of law reforms and the establishment of effective and fair judiciaries are far from perfect. Things are gloomy in anti-corruption efforts, even in the Association Club states.

Ironically, most accomplishments in the EaP policy have more to do with societies of EaP partners, while governments tend to burden or hamper processes. Even official promotional materials of the European Commission speak about accomplishments in business, mobility and efficiency more often, or as often as they speak about the steps which government bodies take to sign new agreements and implement them.

Ukraine’s prospect

Despite the fact that Ukraine was represented by a large delegation chaired by the President, the outcome of its work is hardly optimistic. Firstly, this was the last, somewhat ceremonial visit of Petro Poroshenko where he had an opportunity to meet with the EU partners who supported him during his tenure. Some, such as Donald Tusk, received official awards from Ukraine. Secondly, even the positive results in the implementation of European integration objectives by Poroshenko’s team did not meet a due response from the audience as a result of uncertainty over policy succession with Ukraine’s new President Volodymyr Zelenskyi.

While this did not surprise Kyiv, the draft final declaration did not mention the membership prospect for Ukraine. Therefore, the Ukrainian delegation was not too upset when the participants failed to approve it.  

Foreign Minister Klimkin was forced to explain to his Belarusian colleague Volodymyr Zelenskyi’s statements calling on Ukraine’s neighbors to see how presidents are changed.

Ukraine’s delegation was mostly focused on the talks on possible additional sanctions against Russia for its decision to issue Russian passports to the residents of the occupied parts of the Donbas under a streamlined procedure.

Overall, 10 years of EaP have delivered quite a few results for Ukraine. Kyiv’s next horizon for EaP should follow two tracks: intensified implementation of the Association Agreement with the EU, and recognition of the need to assume the role of the leader amongst EaP states, even if it is in the curtailed format of association. In this, Ukraine needs to seek the support of Warsaw and Stockholm as the EaP format continues its institutional development.