Illustration by Roubina Margossian.
The end of 2021 was marked by the Eastern Partnership’s long-awaited 6th summit. These gatherings help design and enunciate the future framework of the EU’s relations with the six eastern neighbors. One of the most important events of the summit was the meeting between Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan with President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev, organized by the President of the European Council Charles Michel. Since the outbreak of the 2020 Artsakh War, it was the first real attempt by the EU to be one of the actors in the mediation process. Based on the agreement reached at the Brussels meeting, EU Special Representative Toivo Klaar brought 10 Armenian captives from Baku to Yerevan. Through these small steps, the EU wants to open a space for a greater role in the South Caucasus and particularly in managing the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, which is now dominated by Russia and Turkey.
The EU is indeed aspiring to play a greater role in its eastern neighborhood, and this is reflected in the recent policy documents adopted for the Eastern Partnership countries, such as the “Recovery, resilience, and reform: post-2020 Eastern Partnership priorities” strategy adopted by the European Commission on July 2, 2021. The document is a Five-Year Agenda for the eastern neighbors, which replaced the “20 Deliverables for 2020”. It goes hand in glove with the “The Eastern Partnership beyond 2020: Reinforcing resilience – an Eastern Partnership that delivers for all” strategy.
After each Eastern Partnership summit, a declaration is adopted which envisages the future scope of the cooperation. It has been exactly 12 years since the adoption of the first Eastern Partnership declaration in 2009; a comparison of the texts reveals the transformation of the relationship between the EU and the neighbors. Two items that have remained constant in the declaration are 1) the EU’s conditionality and incentive-based approach (“more-for-more” and “less-for-less”) and 2) differentiation. Conditionality is one of the basic tools that the EU has used since the establishment of the European Neighbourhood Policy in 2003, meaning that the countries that make more progress toward European norms will get more financial support. In the context of the Eastern Partnership however, it has proven to not be a very effective tool, as the authoritarian governments in Azerbaijan and Belarus have rejected making reforms in their countries. The other four countries do pay lip service to governance reforms, but in practice they are also subject to episodes of backsliding.
Another distinctive feature of this year’s document is the differentiation that came on to the EU’s agenda after the adoption of the EU’s New Global Strategy in 2016. Prior to that, the EU had taken a one-size-fits-all approach to putting all the Eastern Partnership countries on the path toward signing Association Agreements. However, the catastrophic events in Maidan in 2013-2014 in Ukraine’s capital made the EU change the trajectory of the course. Now the EU reaffirms the sovereign right of each partner to choose their own level of ambition and goals to which it aspires in their relations with the EU: “We stress that this is a constructive partnership, which is not directed against anyone, but is designed to contribute to peace and prosperity for all countries in the neighborhood.”
This year’s declaration makes no mention about future EU membership for any of the Eastern Partnership countries. Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine have forged the closest bonds with the signing of Association Agreements, but any prospects for the next step is still hanging in the air. The declaration reads, “We acknowledge the European aspirations and the European choice of the partners concerned, as stated in the Association Agreements. The agreements provide for accelerating political association and economic integration with the European Union. We welcome progress so far and encourage the full implementation of these Association Agreements and their Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Areas.” The wording can be taken to mean that membership talks for the three Associated countries are not on the near-term agenda.
The declaration did touch upon the security issues in the region. As in the past, it expressed deep concerns about continuing destabilization and violations of the principles of international law in many parts of the Eastern Partnership region that pose a threat to peace, security and stability. These statements never call out a side; they simply encourage renewed efforts to promote the peaceful settlement of unresolved conflicts in the Eastern Partnership region based on the principles and norms of international law.
The two previously-mentioned documents clearly spell out that resilience is indeed a key priority for the EU. Resilience is defined as the ability of states and societies to reform, withstand and recover from domestic and international crises, on the basis of a minimum level of democracy, rule of law and sustainable development. Prosperity of states was one of the triggers of the Eastern Partnership and in the declaration, it welcomed the set of concrete post-2020 priorities summarized in the Annex and highlighted, in particular, on generating concrete benefits for the people. Both the Action Plan and the Declaration set two pillars: investment (to be supported by the economic and investment plan with country-specific flagship initiatives to be taken forward with each of the partner countries) and governance (which will help to strengthen resilience and generate concrete benefits to the citizens of the Eastern Partnership countries): “The new agenda will be underpinned by the €2.3 billion regional economic and investment plan with a potential to mobilize up to €17 billion in public and private investments for the region, which underpins the future agenda. This multi-country and multi-sector investment plan is for the benefit of the Eastern Partnership region as a whole.” This comprehensive agenda based on respect for democracy, human rights and fundamental freedoms, and gender equality will be supported through the EU’s tools and modalities of support, including the Neighbourhood, Development and International Cooperation (NDICI) – Global Europe instrument.
The investment pillar includes the following priorities:
- Together for resilient, sustainable and integrated economies
- Together toward environmental and climate change resilience
- Together toward a concrete digital transformation
They are also included in the Eastern Partnership Beyond 2020 document. The novelty in the declaration is the emphasis on environmental issues, which had not been highlighted so prominently in any other declaration. As the European Green Deal came into reality, the EU started to stress the importance of environmental and climate change challenges. The EU suggests working together for the transformation of the region into a fair and prosperous society, with modern, resource-efficient, clean, circular and competitive economies.
It can be said that for the first time, the EU has a pragmatic and ambitious plan for the region which can have a great impact. Initially, the EU tried to “enter” the region through the front door by dictating democracy and its norms. Now it’s attempting to enter the backdoor by investing a tangible amount of money for which the neighbors are supposedly ready to make significant changes.
For Armenia, the 5 flagship programs are the following:
- Flagship 1: Supporting a sustainable and innovative and competitive economy – direct support for 30,000 SMEs
- Flagship 2: Boosting connectivity and socio-economic development – the north-south corridor
- Flagship 3: Investing in digital transformation, innovation, science and technology
- Flagship 4: Building resilience in the southern regions
- Flagship 5: Investing in a green Yerevan – energy efficiency and green buses
The governmental pillar is focused on the following:
- Together for accountable institutions, the rule of law and security
- Together for resilient, gender-equal, fair and inclusive societies
- Strategic communication
Another change in the declaration is the added stress on gender equality, which is one of the sore points of the Eastern Partnership Beyond 2020 document. Female entrepreneurs will receive more training opportunities, and 40% of all EU-supported SME loans will target women-led companies. Almost all EU investments will have an important gender equality objective.
The EU is building its relations just outside its border in a way which is more pragmatic, goal-oriented and achievable. The implementation of the new policy will allow the EU to expand its soft power and economic leverage, which can later be transformed into greater political influence.
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