Will the EU’s eastern neighbours ever join the club?

The EU has spent more than a decade pondering how to deal with countries to its east that would like to join. In 2009, it launched the Eastern Partnership, meant to handle the European aspirations of six of them, yet has kept them at arm’s length. The Eastern Partnership summit in Brussels on November 24 underlined the EU’s common cause with the six, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. But once again, the EU offered them no prospects of joining.

The declarations were strong enough. The EU leaders said that they “acknowledge the European aspirations and European choice of the partners,”while the six, recommit themselves to strengthening democracy, rule of law, human rights, and fundamental freedoms”. There was more talk about setting up free trade areas between the six and the EU, to tap their energy resources, promote human rights and democracy-building projects. And the leaders renewed a list of 20 “deliverables” for 2020, including tackling corruption, improving the rule of law, modernising the economy and promoting sexual equality.

But for the six, this does not go nearly as far as they’d like, in particular Ukraine, which wants the promise of future membership of the EU. This is partly down to nervousness in the EU about opening the doors to countries that are not yet ready to meet the entry demands, as well as the potential for provoking Russian anger. It was acknowledged by the summit chairman Donald Tusk, the EU Council President, who said: “I would have preferred that the wording of the agreement was more ambitious.”

The problem is that the Eastern Partnership has yet to bring the peace and democracy that its creators had hoped for. When it was launched almost a decade ago, in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Georgia, it was seen as an EU effort to draw the countries away from Moscow’s orbit. Since then, relations with Moscow have worsened, with Russia annexing Crimea and fighting a proxy war in eastern Ukraine. This month’s summit comes amid skirmishes between Azerbaijan and Armenian forces in Azerbaijan’s Nagorno-Karabakh region. And yet, the summit did not discuss these wars, and the final statement merely called for “renewed efforts to promote the peaceful settlement of conflicts in the region.”

The Eastern Partnership has also failed to usher change in Belarus, whose authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko “ dubbed ˜Europe’s last dictator” – is still in power after 23 years. While the EU relented and allowed him to attend the Brussels summit, he declined the invitation.

The Eastern Partnership is chicken-and-egg process: the EU has leverage only if the goal of membership is real. The would-be members have shown political will and courage in reforming their economies and political systems, and they like some reward for their proven commitment to a pro-European course.

Ukraine wants an explicit commitment that it can be accepted as an EU member once it meets the necessary conditions: with a population of 45 million people, it is larger than the other five partner countries combined. But this is problematic for the EU: Dutch voters last year rejected the EU deal that Ukraine signed in 2015, suggesting there is little popular appetite to commit to closer ties with the region.

The Eastern Partnership is already developing on two tracks. Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia have signed the association and trade accords offered under the partnership. They carried out difficult reforms and have all now aligned their priorities with those of the EU and other western institutions. But Azerbaijan, Armenia and Belarus have not, with the latter two instead joining the rival Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union.

The lesson from all this could be an old one: reform takes time and money. The EU’s macro financial assistance, together with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), have been effective in restoring stability, particularly in Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia. But almost three decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, all six countries are still a long way from being on par with their central European or Baltic peers. The EU should continue its engagement with the region, which it has already done much for, even if there is no prospect of them joining the bloc anytime soon.

Authors: Chiara Gaudenzi-Morandi | Leo Cendrowicz

Leave a Reply