In March 2020, the European Commission released a document entitled “The Eastern Partnership beyond 2020: Reinforcing resilience – an Eastern Partnership that delivers for all” which is meant to be its policy guide toward six eastern neighbors: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. Since the launch of the Eastern Partnership (EaP) in 2009 as part of the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) specialized in its eastern neighbors, the EU adopted several policy documents on which to anchor the relationship. However, these documents are derived from the EU’s foreign policy strategies and European Neighbourhood Policy. To understand the main policy approaches of the second decade of the Eastern Partnership, there is a need to trace back and do a comparative analysis of other similar documents adopted by the EU.
The core principle of the “The Eastern Partnership beyond 2020” document is resilience, which is taken from the “EU Global Strategy,” adopted in 2016. 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. The concept was accepted as the foundation for relations with neighbors. However, the concept is criticized for signaling the end of Europe’s normative power in favor of pragmatic power. Resilience is a pathway for the EU to develop relations with its neighbors without requiring them to enhance their democratic institutions. Back in the 2000s, the EU was criticized for having cozy relations with authoritarian states like Libya. By prioritizing resilience, the EU was able to rationalize establishing close trade relations with neighbors that did not share European values. Thus, the inclusion of the principle of resilience in the “The Eastern Partnership beyond 2020” document demonstrates that the pragmatic priorities of the EU have not changed and they will continue to be the pillars of its relationship with its neighbors.
Surrounding Oneself with Friends
The other focal principles of the new document are increased differentiation, greater ownership, enhanced focus and greater flexibility for each partner country. To understand how these principles came about, one needs to dig into the roots of the European Neighbourhood Policy. As a response to the EU’s great enlargement, when ten European states joined the “democratic club,” on March 11, 2003, the Commission presented the “Wider Europe-Neighbourhood: A New Framework for Relations with our Eastern and Southern Neighbours” document, which declares a new policy framework with the 16 new neighbors from Maghreb and Mashriq to the Caucasus. Among them are Algeria, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Egypt, Georgia, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Moldova, Morocco, Palestine, Russia, Syria, Tunisia and Ukraine.
The EU aimed to create a ring of friends, a stable, secure and wealthy zone in its neighborhood. At the turn of the 21st century, war had erupted in Iraq, the world was shaken from the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and authoritarian regimes ruled the Mediterranean countries to the EU’s south. The democratization of the region became the objective of the EU. It was a center-periphery approach, which didn’t work well because it assumed one-size-fits-all. Of course, the challenges and the needs of Ukraine are different from Jordan, however. Eventually, the EU floated the idea of joint ownership, where both sides were more equal partners. However, it was still a strategy for the EU to impose its values. The main tool was positive conditionality – “more for more” – meaning that the countries that make more progress toward European norms will get more financial support. Unfortunately, the rich authoritarian states, which were already flush with cash as they were enjoying an oil boom at the time, weren’t interested in loosening their control. The ENP initiative was quite new both for the EU and for the neighbors. Many mistakes were made, but it provided a solid basis for future policy.
Committing to Deep Democracy
With the rise of the Arab Spring and the adoption of the Lisbon Treaty, the EU made a revision to the ENP in 2011, as a response to internal and external challenges. The situation around Europe and inside Europe was changing drastically. The main concept of the document was “deep democracy” and the EU considered its mission to be assisting these countries as they embark on the journey toward deep (institutionalized) democracy. It should be noted that the main focus was on the southern partners rather than the eastern ones. The main emphasis of the revision was on democracy promotion, institutional transformation, strengthening basic law and human rights, maintaining good governance, reforming the judiciary system, combating corruption, supporting economic modernization and integrating into the global economic system. There was more focus on civil society and, due to this policy, the “civil society facility” and the “European Endowment for Democracy” were created. However, the strategy could not find the solution the EU needed back then. One of the main drawbacks of the strategy was the absence of a mechanism for influence. The EU wanted to promote democracy; however, it did not have a mechanism to do so. Everything depended on the good will of the authoritarian leaders. Again, a “one size fits all” approach was taken, which did not meet the needs of each neighbor.
Ring of Fire
The EU had to revise the ENP one more time in 2015. Considering the geopolitical situation with Russia, the Ukrainian conflict and the migration crisis, the EU had to face new challenges and adopt an appropriate posture. The EU, which had proposed creating a ring of friends around itself, a zone of security and prosperity, had to deal instead with a “ring of fire.” Thus, the EU had to reduce its ambitions and adopt a more practical approach. The main focus was on differentiation, focus, ownership, visibility and flexibility. As mentioned above, these principles also guide the Eastern Partnership second decade strategy. With the 2015 revision, the center-periphery approach was replaced by the “pick and choose” approach. “More for more” or “less for less” had no place in the document. The EU let neighbors define the scope of the relationship. For example, if Azerbaijan was not interested in democracy promotion, they could engage in sector-specific cooperation, such as in energy security. The policy gave a flexible choice to the neighbors to decide the depth of the relations. As a result, three out of six Eastern Partnership countries – Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine – signed Association Agreements and established Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Areas (DCFTAs) with the EU, which is considered the highest form of cooperation between EU and non-EU members. Armenia preferred a Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement (CEPA), which allows keeping a balance between the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and the European Union. Azerbaijan is negotiating a strategic partnership agreement, while relations with Belarus are frozen. It seems flexibility, ownership and differentiation were a response to the challenges the EU had faced since the launch of the European Neighbourhood Policy.
Resilience is the Key
Five years after the revision of the European Neighborhood Policy, the EU adopted a more specific policy approach for the six Eastern Partnership countries. Each partner is free to choose their framework for relations. However, we are left with a huge question mark: What is next?
“The Eastern Partnership beyond 2020” raised more questions than it answered. It is clear there is no prospect of membership for the countries who yearn for it. The Association Agreement and DCFTA are the highest forms of cooperation before membership. Usually, the EU makes these agreements with countries that have membership aspirations. It is a part of the step-by-step approach toward full integration. However, it seems that Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine will stay in this stage for a while.
The EaP beyond 2020 has five flexible and connected long-term policy objectives:
1. Working together for resilient, sustainable and integrated economies
2. Working together for accountable institutions, the rule of law and security
3. Working together toward environmental and climate change resilience
4. Working together toward a concrete digital transformation
5. Working together for fair and inclusive societies
One main concept that has been removed from the initial ENP document is democracy. The EU has slightly changed the zenith of cooperation from democracy promotion to the execution of functioning democracy. All the proposed objectives are concrete, straight and achievable. However, there is a risk that the Eastern Partnership countries, which are very fragile democracies and in between authoritarianism and democracy, will not demonstrate the willpower to transform into well-functioning democracies.
Summing up, the EU policy toward its neighbors has had several transformations. All external and internal factors had contributed to shaping policy perspectives, which are the driving force for the current setup. As a result, from a “one size fits all” approach, when the milestone for each neighbor was to sign an Association Agreement and DCFTA, the EU now suggests a “pick and choose” approach. From a holistic starting point, it has moved toward privileged sector-based cooperation. From center-periphery relations, the EU and its neighbors now have joint ownership. All these transformations assist the EU in building relations that are more pragmatic, goal-oriented and achievable. The EU has stopped being the “democracy inspector” of the region; however, by changing tactics, the EU wants to have a neighborhood of functioning democracies. We are left with the question: What do the neighbors want?