December 12, 2013

Multi-speed Europe and Estonia after Vilnius

After the Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius at the end of November, the hard work will only begin.

The time leading up to the Vilnius summit has considerably heightened public interest in the entire Eastern Partnership initiative of the European Union – will the Vilnius summit bring about a positive breakthrough in the post-Soviet region’s reform processes and pave the way for deeper integration with the EU? The country at the center of  attention is first and foremost Ukraine. Public expectations of the partner nations are very high – after the initialing of the agreements with Moldova and Georgia, the public seems to expect immediate results. How will the EU proceed with Armenia, Azerbaijan and Belarus? The powerful ”Eurasian offensive” from Russia towards the entire Eastern Partnership initiative, itself part of a wider EU neighborhood policy, disproportionally emphasizes the geopolitical aspect of the initiative.
The success of the Vilnius summit, which is the third EU Eastern Partnership summit, seems to be measured in the number of Association Agreements and the accompanying Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area Agreements (DCFTA) signed. This is entirely understandable, inasmuch as those agreements are a prerequisite for the political association and economic integration of the Eastern Partnership countries with the EU. Ukraine’s fate is certainly the most important. The decision regarding the signing of the association agreement has still not been made [as of the time of writing—ed.] and the buzz of information about the signing being linked to the fate of Yulia Tymoshenko is getting louder and louder. As of today, it is certainly possible that Ukraine will not sign the EU association agreement after all, and such a negative scenario would have strong implications to the EU’s Eastern Partnership policy. However, should the signing take place, there remains  the process of the temporary enactment of the agreement and its ratification in the parliament of Ukraine, the European Parliament and the parliaments of all  28 member states.
The initialing of the association agreements with Moldova and Georgia looks more than certain. From that point, however, there is a long way before the agreements are enacted. Those agreements need to be signed first, for which the EU itself needs to go through a whole list of time-consuming legal and technical proceedings, translating the agreement into 24 languages being only one of those. At the same time, the elections to the European Parliament will take place in May next year, followed by the inauguration of a new European Commission, which may considerably delay the process on the EU’s part.
The main task will still be the actual implementation of the agreements. It is therefore clear that Vilnius will signify only the end of a phase and that the hard work with implementing the agreements will only just begin. This is of course in the hands of the partner nations, which means that their political will is necessary. It is also clear that a successful reform process, or rather a successful implementation of the agreements, presupposes deeper changes in a society and its way of thinking than a mere geopolitical choice. Contrary to Estonia in it`s day the governments of the partner nations cannot easily motivate their citizens with the prospect of future EU membership, because there is no such an offer on the table from the European Union and there is no reason to assume that Vilnius would bring it about.
Additionally, many studies and prognoses show that the advantages arising from the agreements with the European Union will rather be visible in the medium-  and long-term perspective. In the near future, however, the implementation of the agreements can even have an opposite effect in various sectors. Taking a look at the support to the integration process with the EU in the three “agreement countries,”, we can see that in both Ukraine and Moldova those numbers are roughly around 50 %, whereas in Georgia the situation is better and support extends to 70 %. This indicates that the partner countries’ governments need to clarify the content of the agreements to their citizens. According to the local contacts of the Estonian Centre of Eastern Partnership, awareness of the issue is rather lacking in the partner countries. This is certainly a major challenge to the European Union, whose actions to provide information in the partner countries have been very lackluster. It is  important that  member states also inform their publics as well.
It is crucial that the EU provide political and financial support until the agreements come into force and during the following implementation process. As was already mentioned, there is no consensus within the EU to offer a possibility of joining the union. That is why it is even more important to find the partner nations some motivating factors,  as the next step towards a results-based deeper integration. The declaration adopted in Vilnius will perhaps give an answer as to which way the wind is blowing in that respect. The EU’s readiness to react flexibly to possible pressure from Russia’s side is also crucial. One of the relevant examples is the proposal by the European Commission to open the European market to Moldovan wines before the actual enactment of the DCFTA. It goes without saying that the EU should do anything in its power to ensure that the technical procedures with such voluminous agreements are completed as quickly as possible.
It is also important to ensure the availability of the financial means necessary for the implementation of the agreements. Many analysts have pointed out that in the process of implementing the DCFTAs, the partner nations must adopt a large part of EU law – the acquis communautaire. At the same time, no such resources have been made available for them on the same basis as for  member states. Considering the financial support to implement the agreements, it will be very important how effectively the principle of “more for more”  will be applied in the case of the new neighborhood policy instrument specified in the 2014–2020 budgetary framework.

Two speeds

But what about the rest of the Eastern partners other than the three discussed above? There are currently talks with Azerbaijan regarding the association agreement. In the case of Azerbaijan, however, there is no DCFTA that was central to the three previously discussed agreements, as Azerbaijan is not a member of the World Trade Organisation. The EU and Azerbaijan’s dialogue over human rights is quite complicated. One of the central topics in the EU’s relations with Azerbaijan is certainly energy. Meanwhile, the EU’s relations with Belarus are still at a low ebb. As we recall, there was an empty chair behind the Belarusian flag at the previous summit in Warszawa. It would be nice if somebody sat there this time. And then there is of course Armenia, whose future relations with the European Union are still an open question after the country’s September decision to join the Customs Union. Hopefully, Vilnius will provide clarity on the issue.
We are therefore witnessing the inception of a multi-speed Eastern Partnership. Quite soon, there will possibly be three Eastern partners who have signed or are just about to sign an association agreement with the European Union. Then, there is Azerbaijan harboring various ambitions. In addition, the ranks of the Eastern partners include two future members of the Customs Union created under the initiative of Russia. There is no real political dialogue with one of them. The other, however, Armenia, has clearly indicated its wish to continue its close relations with the EU and has so far shown quite good results as far as reforms go. One of the indications of that is its impressive performance throughout the negotiating phase of the association agreement (plus the DCFTA).
This kind of increasing differentiation is not bad in and of itself, as long as the decision to favor one or the other choice is in the hands of the partner nation, not a result of blackmail. It is also clear that the partner nations’ ambitions in developing ties with the EU are quite different. For example, Georgia and Moldova have clearly expressed a desire to become full members of the European Union, whereas the objectives of Azerbaijan are not nearly as ambitious. Differentiation is therefore unavoidable. The Eastern Partnership program should not be considered an end in itself. Instead, it is rather a means to bring those nations closer to the European Union, a limited toolbox so to speak, from which one can pick the maximally efficient instruments for the political and economic integration of the more ambitious countries, perhaps even for preparing them for EU membership if and when the time is right and the EU member states consent to it. In any case, it is important that the EU try to involve all the six Eastern Partnership nations as much as possible.
One important instrument in this respect is the dialogue concerning free movement, which has been overshadowed by the association agreements.
This is where the EU’s final offer on the table is the conditional waiver of visas;  in order to achieve this,  the partner nations will have to fulfill an extensive two stage action plan on visa-free travel. Currently, Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia are involved in the action plan. Moldova has made the greatest progress in that area and it is very likely that it will be granted a waiver of visas in the near future.
Another important instrument with which to make the cooperation between the Eastern partners more coherent is the multilateral dimension of the Eastern Partnership. However, the above-mentioned deepening differentiation poses new challenges even here, making the needs of some partner nations different than those of the others. Cooperation within the framework of the multilateral dimension, which was created in support of bilateral relations together with relevant thematic platforms (democracy and good governance, economic integration, energy security and interpersonal contacts),  has not fulfilled  initial expectations. However, we must hope that by sticking to a needs-based approach, we will help find  areas in which multiple partner nations face similar tasks, and with which working together helps bolster regional cooperation. The field of transportation should be mentioned in this regard.

Eastern Partnership and Estonia

The Eastern Partnership region has been a priority region for Estonia for obvious reasons, whether emotional or rational in nature. Indeed, where else would we like to see nations that are democratic, wealthy and think as much like us as possible, if not in our near-neighborhood? We know full well from our own experience with Finland, Sweden, Denmark, etc. that when times are rough, it is important to have supportive  neighbors that provide constructive criticism if necessary. At the same time, we know quite well how an overly patronizing attitude can lead to an opposite result than intended. It is probably not excessive to argue that the Eastern partners in our near neighborhood constitute a region where the support, actions, and example of a small state like Estonia can be quite influential. At any rate, the contacts of the Centre of Eastern Partnership have confirmed this influence.
The Eastern Partnership policy of the European Union has been one of the foreign policy priorities of the Estonian government and has been mentioned as such in the government’s program for the years 2011–2015. Estonia has been active, there is no doubt about that. We have had close bilateral relations with most of the target nations, both on the official and grassroots levels. Estonia has also been active and clearly visible in the development of the EU’s common policy towards the Eastern partners, both in the EU and the partner nations’ bilateral relations, and in its comparatively active involvement in multilateral thematic platforms. Of course, this does not mean that there is no room for further development.
For example, our objective could be a more active involvement in the shaping of the sectoral EU policies in the Eastern Partnership region within those fields where we possess the necessary know-how. Let us consider the field of IT. Estonia’s contribution to the development of the partner nations’ information technology, e-government, and other areas has clearly been remarkable. However, we could bring those two priorities even closer together than before. Until now, such activities have been largely ad hoc in nature. It would be appropriate to use a more broad-based approach than before. It is important to map the opportunities that the development of information technology provides in bringing those countries closer to the European Union. The question is particularly salient pertaining to the necessary reforms in the partner nations in the near future. E-government and particularly the development of IT is an important part of the target nations’ integration process with the EU, as it is related to the development of democracy in general, the visa dialogue, joining the common market, the fight against corruption, and so on and so forth.
An important landmark in Estonia’s Eastern Partnership related activities is the creation of the Estonian Center of Eastern Partnership (ECEAP) in 2011 by the Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Estonian School of Diplomacy. The ECEAP is quite a unique phenomenon, combining elements of a training center and a think tank. One of the reasons for creating the center was to bring Eastern Partnership activities and the communication of reform experiences under the same umbrella, as well as to facilitate its twinning with EU policies. Our common activities with the EU’s External Action Service and the Commission have garnered excellent feedback. In addition to our bilateral activities with the Eastern partners, the ECEAP is also involved in various EU multilateral cooperation thematic platforms. The center has been particularly active in creating and conducting  public administration reform panels, contributing through various activities in particular, and wider-scale studies in general. An efficient and transparent public service is of key importance in the course of the reform processes that lie ahead for the partner nations. The center also cooperates closely with the Estonian School of Diplomacy – 20 people from the Eastern Partnership countries are studying there this year alone.
Let me conclude by stating that the Eastern Partnership will hopefully enter a new phase after the Vilnius summit, the central topic of which will be the implementation of the association agreements and the related economic agreements. Without doubt, it will be a quite painful period. This is why it is important for the EU and also for Estonia not to lose interest or  patience in lending support to the partner nations. Until then, we hope for a successful summit in Vilnius. We shall only be able say in a few years’ time whether Vilnius’ success will be shaped into something lasting; however, we shall certainly be wiser by the time of Estonia’s presidency in 2018.
Translation from Estonian to English by Raivo Hool.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.