The EU's Eastern Partnership: Between promises and realities

#CriticalThinking

Picture of Grigor Boyakhchyan
Grigor Boyakhchyan

Professor at Yerevan State University

Over the past ten years, there have been significant geopolitical shifts in the European Union’s (EU) near and far neighbourhood. Crafted in 2003, the opening remarks of the European Security Strategy underline: “Europe has never been so prosperous, so secure nor so free. The violence of the first half of the 20th Century has given way to a period of peace and stability unprecedented in European history.” This is no longer the case. The ring of instability that currently characterises the EU security landscape both in the East – from the crisis in Georgia in 2008 to the on-going conflict in Ukraine – and in the South calls for a serious reassessment of Europe’s neighbourhood and the adoption of adequate foreign policy tools to respond to fast-changing developments.

The success of the EaP will largely depend on its ability to meaningfully deal with a diverse group of partners with divergent and diverging goals

Europe faces new risks and opportunities on its periphery and beyond and needs to recast its strategic and foreign policy thinking to conform to the evolving setting. The EU’s Neighborhood Policy (ENP) – along with its regional component that has been strengthened through the Eastern Partnership (EaP) and the Union for the Mediterranean (UfM) initiatives – needs to be closely integrated into a unified EU Foreign Policy framework. To promote a shared commitment to stability, security and prosperity, it needs to reassess the conditions needed for further economic integration and the deepening of political co-operation between the EU and partner countries. These competing patterns of policy platforms do not easily cohere into a unified vision.

Formally launched on March 20, 2009, the overarching aim of the EaP initiative is to intensify the EU’s relations with six partner countries in the neighbourhood, namely, Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine to the east and Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia to the south-east. Based on the existing ENP framework, the partnership puts the emphasis on a more pragmatic and regionally-tailored format of co-operation.

The programme aims to create a secure ring of stable and well-governed countries on the eastern borders of the EU. It seeks to establish a security belt around the EU borders that is sustained through effective co-operation networks including multilateral and bilateral frameworks.

The EU member states do not have a common position on the implantation of EaP

However, the underlying objective of the new regional co-operation initiatives such as the UfM and the EaP remains unclear and is contingent on different priorities, largely determined by the dominating group interests within the EU. The primary question is whether these initiatives are complementary or whether they compete with existing policies. For example the EaP is often characterised as an initiative which was launched as a response by some EU member states to the the UfM.

Because of absence of a unified vision on regional priorities within the EU some EU member states focus on the South Caucasus, some on the Mediterranean and others on the Middle East. This is all the more compelling since the EU member states do not have a common position on the implantation of EaP; nor do the eastern neighbors have converging views on its execution on the ground.

While all of the Caucasian republics have declared EU integration as their “strategic choice,” albeit with different evidence to sustain these pronouncements, there is no regional coherence within the group as a whole due to existing security concerns and different country-specific measures to accommodate them. For one, Russia is perceived as a major security threat in Georgia, while Armenia – given its geopolitical location and security perceptions vis-à-vis Azerbaijan and Turkey – regards Russia as the main guarantor of its security and heavily relies on it both militarily and economically. Azerbaijan, on the other hand, maintains strong security partnerships with Turkey and Israel, while procuring modern military hardware from Russia.

To complicate the landscape further, Georgia recently signed an Association Agreement with the EU that sets up the legal foundations for an enhanced political and economic co-operation. Armenia has indicated its readiness to join the Russian-led Eurasian Union, along with Belarus and Kazakhstan, and has already gained membership of the body. Azerbaijan has stayed away from both.

These security perceptions and alliances clearly weaken the impact of the EaP. Different visions, political agendas, and alliance partnerships that drive the policies of South Caucasian republics present a clear challenge to the successful accomplishment of the initiative.

To succeed on its eastern borders, the EU needs to come up with more realistic initiatives, clearer incentives and better mechanism

On a broader scale, the frequently contradictory interests both within EU member states and those between the EU and Russia not only cripple the integration processes in the region, but also weaken their effective execution on the ground. The success of the EaP will largely depend on its ability to meaningfully deal with a very diverse group of partners with divergent and diverging goals.

While finding a compromise between member states is a complex practice in the EU foreign policy-making process, the divergence  between the Mediterranean and Eastern initiatives undermines the EU’s strategic leverage in the region. Also, such discrepancies find a direct reflection in the perceptions of the participant countries, resulting in half-hearted efforts that undercut the overall outreach of the program and compromise its effectiveness.

The Eastern Partnership summit in Riga on 21-22 May will serve as an important platform for the review of the ENP strategy – and its integration into an overall EU Foreign Policy – in order to bridge the widening gap between the EU and partner countries. To succeed on its eastern borders, the EU needs to come up with more realistic initiatives, clearer incentives and better mechanisms that can be meaningfully translated into more workable and regionally-attuned policies.

The EU’s role in promotion of stability and security at its eastern borders cannot be meaningfully accomplished without taking into account the current geostrategic realities in its eastern neighbourhood, as well as aspirations of individual countries with respect to the programme. What is indeed needed is the formulation of a coherent EU policy which reflects the concerns and interests of the eastern neighbours. The partnership should be a two-way process of mutual accommodation.

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