Searching for a New Narrative
When considering the European Union's Eastern Partnership policy, one can objectively say that there has been some success. Three countries have signed Association Agreements and some progress has been achieved in the area of individual mobility. But how do the Eastern Partnership states appraise this success? A recent survey provides some insight into the perceptions and faults of the EU's Eastern Partnership policy.
The European Union’s Eastern Policy has been challenged since the Vilnius Summit in 2013. It has transformed from being an extensive bureaucratic (both in a good and bad way) exercise into a policy issue with high priority. The reason is obvious: the Ukrainian EuroMaidan Revolution, the subsequent annexation of Crimea and – as a result – the deterioration of relations between the EU and Russia. Moreover, the new European Commission has decided to review its European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP), of which the Eastern Partnership is a part. However, expectations should not be exaggerated. There will not be a new, grand European strategy.
Nevertheless, when it comes to the EU’s neighbourhood policy, member states are divided. The eastern policy is no exception. The Riga Summit of the Eastern Partnership (EaP) in May 2015 produced no breakthroughs. The search for a new narrative continues. A recent research project called “Important, Forgotten, or Irrelevant? A Stakeholders’ Survey on Post-Vilnius Eastern Partnership” conducted by the Association for International Affairs (AMO) attempted to map the ideas and opinions of influential figures from EaP partner countries regarding the EaP initiative and was aimed at understanding how the project can move forward. The findings noted, above all, that in order to make the new policy successful, the views and expectations of the partners, or neighbouring countries, need to be better reflected in the policy.
A broad range of contributors to the public debate were approached to participate in the research survey. In all, 918 people from EaP states were contacted, of whom 213 (23.2 per cent) responded to the questionnaire. The response rate varied from 5.2 per cent in Azerbaijan, 16.2 per cent in Georgia, 23.9 per cent in Armenia 25.3 per cent in Ukraine, 29.3 per cent in Moldova to, interestingly, 40.4 per cent in Belarus. We addressed stakeholders who were involved in, or had the opportunity to engage in, the EaP on a regular basis and were theoretically in a position to offer a frank assessment. The group was made up of politicians (9.3 per cent selected members of national parliaments, members of governments, selected politicians active at regional level); civil servants (24 per cent diplomats, employees of state administration); people in business (4.8 per cent representatives of chambers of commerce); analysts and researchers (25.8 per cent); journalists (8.9 per cent) and NGO workers (27.2 per cent). The respondents’ shares differed. Therefore, the data mainly consists of the opinion of analysts and researchers (37.8 per cent) and NGO workers (25.3 per cent). The final third of respondents was divided accordingly: civil servants 11.5 per cent, journalist 8.8 per cent, politicians 6 per cent, and business representatives just 1.4 per cent. 9.2 per cent of respondents declared that they do not fit into any of the pre-selected categories. The questionnaire was dispatched electronically and had 15 questions, with three types of questions. First, was an evaluation of the EaP since its inception in 2009. Second, respondents were asked to give their expectations regarding the EaP’s future direction. The final set of questions asked for recommendations.
While evaluating the EaP, one has to take into account several features which are part of its architecture. First and foremost, it is an asymmetric partnership. The EaP is in fact a tool for Europeanisation. It allows for Eastern European countries to reform legal structures to meet EU standards. Therefore, it relies on the EaP countries’ – or perhaps, more precisely, its political elite’s – will to do so. There is no stick on the part of the EU. The only punishment from Brussels would be that relations would remain underdeveloped. Yet, the EU can offer some carrots, such as trade liberalisation and economic development resulting from the proper implementation of EU norms and the easing of individual mobility.
Objectively, there has been some positive developments. Representatives of EU institutions often point out that three countries have signed Association Agreements and that progress has been achieved in the area of individual mobility. But how did the respondents from the EaP countries appraise these results? A clear majority confirmed that there has been some progress in the categories of political association (77.8 per cent) and economic integration (68.5 per cent) with the EU. However, there are sharp differences. Belarusian, Armenian and Azeri respondents do not, for obvious reasons, see such progress. Despite these variations in individual states, the shared opinion remains that political co-operation, political integration and economic development are the major benefits of the EaP.
As mentioned above, the principal goal of the EaP was to make Eastern Europe look more like the EU. Has this happened? We can use various indices to map the situation. What kind of progress do the representatives from the EaP countries actually see?
The key findings from the research indicate that interviewees overwhelmingly (84.8 per cent) believe that the EaP represents a tool for the transformation of the legal systems of participating countries up to European standards. However, the detailed picture is quite complex. Examining legislative approximation, which was one of the goals of the 2009 Prague Declaration, two-thirds of respondents think that there has been some or significant progress. Once again, the countries which have signed Association Agreements, as well as Armenia, believe that progress has been made, whereas Belarus and Azerbaijan do not. When it comes to upholding good governance, only 51.1 per cent of respondents believe that the EaP has created any progress. Moreover, in bolstering the pro-reform cause in partner countries, the EaP received the fairly low approval rating of 58.8 per cent.
There were mixed feelings regarding the EaP’s achievements in the area of individual mobility. Generally, respondents recognised some or significant progress here (63.4 per cent) and saw it as the third most important benefit of the EaP. However, again there was a lot of variation between individual countries. Moldovans were the most optimistic, Georgians and Ukrainians less so, whilst Belarusians, Armenians and Azeri were pessimistic.
Of course, there are areas where the EaP failed. The most commonly aired concern about the shortcomings of the EaP was its “ineffectiveness”. Apart from a lack of will on the part of domestic political elites, there were three other factors which slowed down the policy’s success. First, the weak security of partner countries combined with the second factor, Russia’s aggressive behaviour towards them. Thirdly, energy dependency made political association less conceivable. The same factors were also challenged by respondents. The Prague declaration states that the goals of the EaP were to “serve the shared commitment to stability, security and prosperity of the European Union, the partner countries and indeed the entire European continent.” This hasn’t happened and respondents noted as much. Weak security was the second most expressed critique vis-à-vis the EaP. Only 35 per cent of respondents stated that there had been some success in security and stability promotion, while 33 per cent didn’t see any progress at all. What’s more, 31.1 per cent thought that the situation had worsened. Moldovans and Georgians were the most positive in that regard, whereas Ukrainians, understandably, were the least so. Only 22.5 per cent of interviewees agreed that the EaP has served as a key security guarantee for its partner countries.
The EU fiercely denied that the EaP is aimed against Russia’s interests, something that later became a part of the Kremlin’s propaganda. The results of the research show that a proportionately large share of respondents (43.1 per cent) supported the statement that the EaP is actually an EU geopolitical instrument aimed against Russia. The greatest level of support for this statement came from Georgia. Indeed, there is a question as to whether respondents ticked this option because they thought Brussels is plotting against Moscow or just because they think the EU fulfils the necessary role of challenging Russia.
The overall result is that the EaP has brought some general progress. However, there are areas (and countries) which still need a lot of work in order to achieve the policy’s aims. Thus, the logical question arises: how to revamp the Eastern Partnership as an instrument to meet the partner countries’ needs and expectations.
The EU has repeatedly stated that the EaP is not about enlargement. Even the respondents from partner countries do not perceive it as a precursor for future candidate status. On the other hand, 91.1 per cent believe that the membership perspective would be the best incentive for future reforms. If the more for more principle should be upheld – something that the interviewees also believe – then there must be some offer after association. Anything but institutions means nothing in the long term. The EU has to face the fact that if Ukraine sustains its current challenges and after five or ten years is still told that “membership lies beyond all horizons”, the EU may end up with another Turkey on its border. It may co-operate, it may struggle for good trade relations and people-to-people contacts, but it will have its own values and interests. Perhaps the most important risk would be that a country which feels abandoned by Europe could be quite unpredictable and the EU’s soft power there would simply evaporate.
There were some indications of disillusionment among particular respondents (who were recruited mainly from the NGO and expert communities). A significant share of interviewees signalled that the EU should provide partner countries with assistance without affecting the political and economic foundations of those countries. This claim was raised mainly by Armenians, Belarusians and Georgians. Such an attitude goes against the principle of conditionality, the cornerstone of political and economic approximation with the EU.
Though the political elite are important players and the most influential partners in the implementation of EaP goals, they are not the only power. The pressure from civil society is very important and may ignite fundamental changes. That was the case in Ukraine. Similarly, society has protested against a corrupted political class in Moldova, one that had claimed to be pro-EU. Therefore, for further EaP progress to be made, the EU must be aware of the situation in partner countries and cannot rely solely on the political elite. The tool of mobility is just as important. Together with economic development and security, mobility should remain a key area of EU focus. Partner countries also share the view, that the EaP’s participation in community programmes like Erasmus+ should receive more funding over the next five years.
The question as to where EU money should be streamed was also part of the survey. The answers varied considerably. Georgians emphasised comprehensive institution building, Moldovans preferred regional development programmes, while Ukrainians pointed to integrated border management. The regional energy market and energy efficiency was also perceived as a high priority for EU funding, mainly by Moldova and Ukraine.
Without a doubt, there is a need for change in the EU’s neighbourhood policy and especially in its eastern dimension. It might be possible to amend the EaP as an instrument; to channel funds into new areas or to devote more attention to the work on the ground with civil society. However, the EaP needs to be approached as a policy, not as a tool. Demonstrable shortcomings such as the lack of membership perspective, a non-existing security dimension and a poor energy security element, all of which were stressed by the survey respondents, signal that the EaP needs more than a ‘red-tape’ approach. It needs politics because the lack of political decisiveness and interest from the EU would, in the long term, endanger the EaP as an instrument of political approximation.