Estonia must use its EU presidency wisely to stand up for the Eastern Partnership.
The Riga summit taking place on 21–22 May is the fourth of its kind. People usually expect results from these summits. However, historic decisions similar to those made at the Vilnius summit are less likely this time. And this is not only because things are not progressing as quickly as desired, but also because many of the tasks related to the Eastern Partnership—such as signing the association agreements—have already been completed. This does not mean, however, that the summit is insignificant. Above all, it is important in the new international environment to stress the significance of relations between the EU and its eastern partners, to mark progress or shortcomings, and, finally, to consider further paths for relations between six such diverse countries and the European Union.
The world has changed radically since the Vilnius summit 18 months ago, due primarily, of course, to the Russian armed activity in Ukraine. Although we are mainly concerned about the events taking place in our neighbourhood, developments to the south are also very important. The neighbourhood policy, which was initiated to support the process of democratisation, is therefore now dealing more with security challenges. In order to respond to these crises, the European Commission has started a review of the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP), which should be complete by the end of this year, and the Riga summit should contribute to this process. Reviewing should enable priorities to be readjusted according to the changed situation.
There is no reason to believe that hopes of achieving greater ambitions, such as the EU opening up to interested partners, could not grow. What matters is that they should not diminish. As the Riga summit declaration will probably demonstrate, the EU can only agree on something that all 28 member states can agree on. At the moment, this excludes changes which are considered too radical or ambitious. However, this does not mean that the whole review process is simply an act to bring more legitimacy to the EU neighbourhood policy. Just as the immense variety of its activities has been the strength of the Eastern Partnership policy, the review of the neighbourhood policy could be expected to produce positive results primarily by the fine-tuning of small steps. It is also significant that treating the neighbourhood policy as a whole could increase member states’ involvement. In other words, for the southern countries such as Italy and Spain to be more interested in the Eastern partners, we in the north must be open about their problems.
The Riga summit has also been called the “survival summit” for the Eastern Partnership, as the policy’s viability in the current environment has come into question. The associated countries—Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova—feel that the Eastern Partnership is running out of tools; agreements have been signed, and visa exemptions might also be achieved soon. The other three countries, which are going in different directions (Belarus, Armenia and Azerbaijan), do not want to, or cannot, use it for various reasons. This illustrates one of the fundamental contradictions in implementing the EU Eastern Partnership policy. If the whole neighbourhood policy was initially built on a results-oriented approach based on the principle of enlargement—the so-called more-for-more principle—then at the current level of differentiation it can only be applied selectively. For the rest, an interest-based sectoral cooperation would apply. The EU therefore needs to solve the fundamental question of how to combine values and interests in the ENP.
An important related challenge is the growing resistance among several EU member states towards all kinds of ambition. Naturally, the successful completion of the association agreements is still a long way off, and fulfilling these agreements is the priority. But this process needs a further prospect. So it is now time to formulate a clear message about what comes after the association agreements. According to information leaked in the media, the Riga summit declaration currently being drafted seems to be weaker than the Vilnius declaration in this respect. And this applies not only to the direct accession issue, but also to other solutions, such as deepening economic cooperation.
These discrepancies increase the danger that, at the moment, it is easiest for the EU to act according to the lowest common denominator. And, of course, this way it might be possible to avoid upsetting the neighbours’ neighbour, Russia. Assuming that the main aim is not the Eastern Partnership policy itself but, above all, the democratisation of these countries and the successful implementation of reforms that ensure a market economy and the rule of law, focusing on the lowest common denominator and interests will not get us very far. The inclusion of the partner countries in the process is essential to the future of these key issues—how they envisage the future of the Eastern Partnership, how strongly the three associated countries are able to distinguish themselves from the others, and so on.
Since it appears there is no instant solution, the focus should be on available options. Right now, it is important to support, to the greatest extent possible, the realisation of the association agreements with the three countries. This is the main basis for the Estonian Center of Eastern Partnership, an establishment focused mainly on practical activities. Meanwhile, it should not be forgotten that this is a long-term process. If the prospect of accession is not attainable at the moment, it can only be hoped that it is in process because enforcing unrealistic agreements would take these countries tantalisingly close to their goal. After all, the Eastern Partnership neither ensures nor excludes the prospect of accession, and this is what those with more ambition should act upon.
Ukraine is naturally the most keenly discussed associated country and, from its perspective, warfare in the eastern part of the state has obscured developments on the EU reform agenda. The EU’s message to Ukraine has been the clear requirement to move forward with reforms more quickly and more vigorously, and to not only adopt but also implement laws—despite the war and the extremely difficult economic situation. One of the primary concerns for Ukraine is that it should receive as clear and affirmative a message as possible from Riga regarding visa exemption, but it is safe to assume that it will be a while before Ukraine receives complete exemption. The economic chapter of the association agreement (DCFTA) is currently of key importance in Ukraine’s EU integration process. As will be recalled, Ukraine requested postponing the implementation of the DCFTA, and this is now scheduled for 1 January 2016. Meanwhile, it is clear that Russia will actively attempt to stop its implementation. DCFTA is the backbone of the association agreement and the main driving force of the reforms, and if it is still not implemented, talk of reform in Ukraine may be intellectually inspiring but it will not result in the agreement that the people took to the streets for after Vilnius.
Georgia and Moldova are usually considered the two success stories among the Eastern partners. They have certainly travelled furthest on their path towards EU integration. Both have a temporarily applied association agreement—full enforcement presumes the completion of ratification procedures. They have also made considerable advances in matters of mobility. Moldova already has visa exemption and it is to be hoped that Georgia will complete the process soon. A positive message from Riga on the visa exemption issue has been one of the primary goals for Georgia as well, and it is important that the message is strong. As can be seen from Moldova’s experience, it is something tangible and positive which, among other things, makes Moldova more attractive to the people of Transnistria.
However, it is evident that both countries need more time to achieve deeper and more visible reforms. The economic situation in Georgia and Moldova is still not good and domestic political stability is fragile. Following the elections in November 2014, Moldova has struggled to form a new and effective coalition. Corruption is still a major issue; the most hotly debatred topic in Moldova is the disappearance last year of nearly one billion euros to secret bank accounts. Over the last year, we have witnessed several government upheavals in Georgia, which illustrate a certain fragility of the coalition and internal policy in general. All of this affects the attitude of politicians in EU member states.
In conclusion, both countries have reached a rather complex phase, with the end of the time for great positive messages and the beginning of a phase of long-term hard work, where there is no reason to pop the champagne cork every day because the results will only be achieved in several years’ time. The people, however, usually expect results, and miracles, overnight. This raises the question of how to assist these countries in ensuring continuing support for the reform process. Support for further EU integration varies greatly among countries. There is a national consensus on the Euro-Atlantic integration in Georgia and, “thanks” to Vladimir Putin, the EU has become more popular in Ukraine as well. But in Moldova, opinion is divided more or less fifty-fifty and many associate the EU with the current government, which, in turn, is often associated with corruption.
Since autumn 2013, the Estonian Center of Eastern Partnership has chosen EU-oriented communication in Eastern Partnership countries as one of its horizontal priorities, in addition to the e-state. First and foremost, the activities focus on the association agreements, but we have included all six countries. The programme is once again based on Estonia’s own experience—complicated and expensive reforms that come with reforming society are not always regarded as essential by everyone. The successful resolution of these problems presumes the partner country’s own ability to make these changes strategically comprehensible.
If the three associated countries have clearly defined their strategic goal, however rough the road may be, then for the other three countries developments are heading in completely different directions. As will be recalled, Armenia withdrew from its association agreement with the EU in 2013 due to pressure from Russia, and is now a member of the Eurasian Economic Union. Belarus is also a member of this union, but its pendulum of relations swings on the positive side of the scale as much as possible. It is likely that we will soon learn what the EU’s future framework regarding these two countries is. Energy policy is naturally topical for Azerbaijan, but more extensive relations with the EU have been very complicated lately, mainly because of the EU’s criticism of the deteriorating human rights situation there. In addition, Azerbaijan is not pleased with the lack of support regarding its territorial integrity. On a positive note, all three countries have made progress in visa matters.
How does Russia relate to all this? Russia’s future plans in Ukraine will remain predictions, but the wider pattern of its actions shows clear opposition to the Eastern Partnership policy. It is clear that Russia is trying to use all possible measures to restrain the partner countries’ European integration process—cold and hot conflicts, sabotaging the implementation of the economic chapter of Ukraine’s association agreement, pressure in the energy sector, a divide-and-conquer policy towards the Eastern Partnership countries (e.g. reopening the Russian market for Georgia), driving a wedge between EU member states, and requesting a say in the EU’s sovereign foreign-policy decisions (it is to be hoped that we will not find ourselves in a situation where Russia, Ukraine and the EU will once again negotiate about the EU–Ukraine association agreement). After all, Russia does not need to take up arms because the Eastern Partnership countries are still vulnerable. Russia is counting on time, and believes it will run in its favour. Unfortunately, Europe constantly suffers from a hidden Ukraine-induced exhaustion, and, for many, this is intensified by regret over the deteriorating relationship with Russia.
Estonia’s interests and role
The Eastern Partnership region is unquestionably a priority for Estonia, which is why Estonia has been a firm supporter of the EU’s policy. As a sign of this support, the Center of Eastern Partnership was established in 2011. Since the coming years are crucial, especially for the associated countries, it is essential that Estonia maintain its support.
This support has several layers. Keeping in mind the already-mentioned wide extent of the relationship, it is important that the various manifestations of the Estonian authorities, including representatives of local government units, non-governmental organisations and educational establishments, continue and deepen their activities, while acting knowingly in the wider context of the association agreements. Here, the beneficial factor is the first-hand transmission of Estonia’s own transition experience, which is also supported by the prevailing strong sympathy for these countries. Estonia’s experience and example are also valid in these countries, as the experience of the Center of Eastern Partnership confirms.
The second layer, closely related to the first, is Estonia’s activity in the EU. We must voice our support for our near neighbours and their ambitions, as well as fight potential exhaustion and apathy. Our forthcoming presidency in 2018 is also important in this context. Before Estonia, the presidency will be held by Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Slovakia, Malta and the United Kingdom. Estonia has been the strongest of all these in advocating for the Eastern partners. We can therefore assume that expectations of us are quite high. Of course, the role and influence of the presidency is limited, but it nevertheless provides an opportunity to play a bigger role in policy-making. This is why it is integral that we have high ambitions early on in the game concerning sectors that are important and achievable for us, and that we try to have a greater say in general EU policy-making.
The time and place for the next summit have not yet been set. It would be nice if it finally took place in one of the partner countries; by that time those countries will, we hope, show real signs of progress in the reform process. That would undoubtedly be their best argument—but it is, first and foremost, up to the partner countries themselves.
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.