The European Union and the Eastern Partnership: a story of success?

by Stefano Filipuzzi

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine unleashed a series of unprecedented consequences in several countries located at the periphery of the European Union. Ukraine immediately applied to join the European Union. Such perspective was also raised in the diplomatic talks between Ukraine and Russia as a way to make up for Ukraine’s unmet aspirations to join NATO. In Georgia, thousands of protesters took to the streets to show their support for the Ukrainian people and to take sides against their government’s initial decision not to adopt Western-style sanctions against Russia. Feeling more vulnerable than ever, especially due to the Russian military presence in their territories, both Georgia and Moldova then followed the Ukrainian example and submitted an application to join the EU. By so doing, these three peripheral European countries have thus renewed their firm willingness to look to the West for their future. Conversely, Belarus proved to be totally at the mercy of Moscow, to the point of providing its own territory to the aggressive military operations of its larger neighbour. As for Armenia and Azerbaijan, which had suspended their hostilities only because of Russia’s mediating role, the first worrying signs of a new clash between them have started to emerge with the relocation of an increasing number of Russian forces to the Ukrainian front. In light of these considerations, it is interesting to shed light on the relations that existed between these countries and the European Union before the outbreak of the war.

The creation of the Eastern Partnership

Relations between the European Union and the six countries in its eastern neighbourhood region (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine) have been cultivated within the framework of the Eastern Partnership, which represents the eastern branch of the wider European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP).

Conceived in 2004, after the largest round of EU expansion, the ENP aims to ensure stability, prosperity and security for countries located in close geographic proximity to the Union for the benefit of both parties. By promoting the alignment of these countries’ political and economic systems to the European framework through greater cooperation, the EU intends to bring them closer to its values without however granting them membership, which many member states feared would jeopardize the proper functioning of the Union itself. To use the words of the then President of the European Commission, Romano Prodi, it was a question of “sharing everything but the institutions” with these countries.

Originally, the concept of the ENP had been elaborated exclusively in relation to countries on the Southern and Eastern side of the Mediterranean. However, many within the EU believed that if there was a neighbourhood policy for the south, there should be one for the east as well. Driven by this belief, in May 2008 the Polish and Swedish governments put forward the idea of ​​a partnership bringing together all the former USSR countries in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus. The outbreak of the Russo-Georgian war in 2008 and its repercussions on the stability of the region only strengthened the willingness of EU member states to proceed in such direction. Thus, in May 2009, the Eastern Partnership was officially launched.

An assessment of the Eastern Partnership initiative

The official objective of the Eastern Partnership is to deepen and strengthen political and economic relations between the European Union and the six post-Soviet countries to its east: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine. This implies supporting those same reform processes in the political, economic and social spheres that are at the centre of the actual EU accession process. According to the previous work plan, the Eastern Partnership set itself the goal of achieving 20 objectives within 2020, which covered four main priority areas: economy, society, connectivity, and governance. If one considers these four main policy fields, how can one assess the Eastern Partnership’s result? has it been a success for the Union or a failure? As often happens when analysing European policies, the results are conflicting and vary according to the different policy areas.

With regards to the first component, that is, the economy, the partnership between the Union and the six eastern states aimed to promote economic development and widen market opportunities. From this point of view, it can certainly be said that the Partnership has proved useful and effective. Economic and trade links with the EU have been substantially strengthened, with the EU now being the largest trade partner for all the Eastern Partnership states, with the exception of Belarus. In particular, the economic integration with three of these six countries – Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraineincreased considerably following their decision to sign with the Union association agreements and deep and comprehensive free trade agreements that opened the doors of the European market for their businesses. But trade relations with other countries have also grown significantly. Armenia, which preferred to sign the CEPA (Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement) with the Union rather than the more demanding Association agreement due to its relations with Russia, has benefited from the elimination of numerous trade barriers. All in all, it looks like the Eastern Partnership has been an economic success.

Moving on to society, it also seems that social links and people’s mobility between the Eastern Partnership countries and the EU have strengthened. Visa-free regimes have been implemented between the EU and Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova, and thousands of young people have taken part in school and university exchanges, vocational training and volunteering through the Erasmus programme. This, on the other hand, has contributed to spreading the pro-European sentiment and expanding the pro-EU aspirations that already characterised the younger generations in these countries. As for connectivity, a macro-category containing provisions on energy efficiency, environment and climate change policy, there have been some improvements in transport links and infrastructure thanks to EU funds and to the inclusion of the Eastern Partnership countries in the Trans-European Transport Networks. Finally, the Union’s effort to promote better governance has resulted in the allocation of funds amounting to millions of euros to support civil society starting from 2014.

Although from this analysis it may seem that the Eastern Partnership has been a real success, upon closer inspection, this initiative lends itself to numerous criticisms. First, many observers criticise the difference between the rhetoric-ridden public discourse of the Union and its concrete actions. On the one hand, the EU stresses concepts such as cooperation and friendship with its eastern neighbours, and this creates expectations in its interlocutors. On the other, however, its nature as a supranational organisation prevents it from being an effective actor in foreign policy. The consequence is that the initial expectations are not met, and public opinions within these countries may become more prone to welcome other actors.

Although the European Union certainly enjoys greater economic attractiveness thanks to the potential of its single market, the transformation of the current world order – ushered in by the appearance on the world scene of new poles of power – represents a significant challenge to EU interests. As current events show, Russia is the first of these actors that wishes to undermine the Union’s action in this area and is ready to resort to arms to achieve its ends. In this respect, Russia sees the Eastern Partnership as an anti-Russian initiative that interferes in its sphere of influence and, in doing so, threatens its own existence. To limit the attractiveness of the European Union, it also created its own alternative model of regional integration, the Eurasian Economic Union, which managed to bring together two of the six Partnership states (Belarus, Armenia). In the first case, the intolerance to the EU’s political conditionality exerted such a negative influence on the Belarusian leadership that they took the decision to leave the Eastern Partnership altogether in June 2021.

But Russia is not the only actor who is looking eagerly at these states. Turkey, connected to Azerbaijan by historical, linguistic, ethnic and cultural ties, sees in the mountainous Caucasus area a natural border for its territory. As for Ukraine, the large size of its agricultural production as well as its central geographical position makes it a key player for China’s interests. Nonetheless, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine convinced three members of the Eastern Partnership – Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia – of the necessity to look westward. Thus, in March 2022, they officially asked to join the EU. Even though, in theory, the EU reacted promptly to these requests, the institutions – and the member states – will now have to demonstrate that they are up to this challenge and that they will not fail to deliver what they promised. Otherwise, the trust these states have placed in the EU would be undermined for a long period of time, and so would the EU’s interests in its own neighbourhood.