How important is the Eastern Partnership for the EU? And what about Russia?

The fourth Eastern Partnership summit will take place in Riga on May, 21-22. What kind of role does the Eastern Partnership project play in the current state or tensions/conflict between the EU and Russia, is it important for the EU to keep the project running and maybe is it important for Russia to disrupt the project? Read few comments.

Susan Stewart, Deputy Head, Eastern Europe and Eurasia Division, Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik – German Institute for International and Security Affairs

I believe that the Eastern Partnership (EaP) is very important, because it is the main way the EU sends signals to the countries in Eastern Europe and the South Caucasus about what kind of a relationship it wants to have with them. The EaP has some major weaknesses, but there is no other comparable EU initiative for this area, so it will be crucial in the upcoming years to modify and improve the EaP and to send clear messages to the partner countries about what the EU sees as possible and what it does not. This is especially true because Russia is putting pressure on these countries to be involved in its own projects, such as the Eurasian Economic Union, and the EaP countries need to be able to assess their options on the basis of as much reliable information as possible. In my opinion, Russia’s goal is to convince the West (the EU and the US in particular) to acknowledge Russia as having a privileged and dominant role in its neighbourhood, i.e. a legitimate sphere of influence. Therefore Russia sees the EaP as a threat, because to the extent it is successful the EaP will mean more influence for the EU in the countries involved. Russia sees this as meaning less influence for Russia, both due to zero-sum thinking and because Russia’s goals in the neighbourhood do not coincide with those of the EU. The EaP is aimed at making the partner countries stronger and more stable in some respects – economically and politically, for example – and this is not in Russia’s interest. Russia would rather have weak neighbours that it can dominate easily. So in that sense Russia is interested in seeing the EaP fail, and in contributing to its failure.

Igor Merheim-Eyre, PhD Candidate in International Relations, School of Politics and International Relations, University of Kent

I believe that with the current tensions between the EU and Russia, and on-going war in Ukraine, the Eastern Partnership project is more relevant than ever. I feel that the problem in the on-going tension lies not in the existence of this regional initiative but in the question of how we engage with our eastern neighbours, and how much the project also takes into account the needs of the eastern neighbours, and the presence of Russia.

What I mean is, we should not be blinded by illusions. For example, what is clear is that the EU currently cannot compete with Russia on the geopolitical level, not only because it does not have the capability, but mainly because it does not have the will. I think it was the Slovak foreign minister Miroslav Lajcak who said of the EU’s failure to sign the Deep and Comprehensive Trade Agreement (DCFTA) with Ukraine back in 2013 that the EU politicised a technical issue. In other words, the signing of the DCFTA at the Vilnius Summit in November 2013 was turned into a ‘do-or-die’ issue – it put Ukraine at a difficult cross-road, having to choose between the DFCTA or a cash injection from the Kremlin, which to some extent contributed towards the ensuing crisis. For the EaP project to be successful, this must never happen again. Instead, what is becoming increasingly clear is that the EU must advocate a different approach.

Take Belarus; every time the EU tried to lecture Belarus about democracy or human rights, the relations between the two froze. Sanctions were implemented, visa restrictions put in place for officials, but this had little or no impact on the Belarussian leadership. However, increasingly, a lot of cooperation is taking place at the technical level. Border management, for example, is on area where there has been and continues to be a great deal of cooperation between the EU and Belarus – at the moment, the EU is running a 4.2m euro project helping to establish better management of borders between Belarus and Ukraine, increasing both cooperation between the two states, and helping their capacity at preventing smuggling, trafficking, or illegal migration.

In Moldova, prior to last year’s granting of a visa-free regime, the EU was instrumental in reforming Moldova’s Interior Ministry and Customs & Excise. Currently, Moldova’s Justice Sector is under-going a huge transformation, owing to the EU’s technical and financial assistance. The Slovak Atlantic Commission is currently running a large-scale innovative programme working with the Moldovan society.

It is not that democracy and human rights are not important; on the contrary. However, unlike a ‘do-or-die’ politicising of the EaP project, these small technical aspects are having a huge transformative impact and giving an opportunity for dialogue with countries like Belarus who does not wish to be preached at, or wish to anger its much bigger eastern neighbour, Russia. A more technical approach, therefore, is opening new doors for cooperation, without necessarily aggravating Russia.

In other words, for the EaP to function, it must not be positioned in direct opposition to Russia but rather try to find a way for compatibility between itself and the Eurasian Union. I am sure Russia will always grumble at the EU’s presence in the region. However, the current stand-off must be diffused, and stop forcing the countries of the eastern neighbourhood to choose between the EU or Russia.

Therefore, for the EaP project to be successful, the EU must concentrate on those areas of cooperation where it makes the most difference. Justice sector or border management might be too dull or lack vision in the eyes of some, but they are areas that make a huge impact for these countries. We might take these issues for granted, but in states that have frozen conflicts on their territories (such as Moldova with regards to Transdniester), the ability to control customs duty or manage the entry to its own territory make a big difference to daily functions and, indeed, even survival of those states.

Heidi Maurer, Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Maastricht University

What kind of role does the Eastern Partnership project play in the current state or tensions/conflict between the EU and Russia?
The role of the EaP in the conflict with Russia it is not about the EaP, how it is set up, what it does – but it is more about the general idea: drawing countries into the influence of the “West” or Russia. That seems at least the very superficial interpretation at the moment, although on European side this objective was never so strongly formulated. If we recall the main aim formulated in the EaP strategy: “The EaP should bring a lasting political message of EU solidarity, alongside additional, tangible support for their democratic and market-orientated reforms and the consolidation of their statehood and territorial integrity”. The EaP in similar manner like ENP aimed at creating stability and security at EU borders by engaging with the partners there, but the objective was never to draw countries away from Russian influence. This rather neorealist/geostrategic thinking simply does not fit the way EU Foreign Policy works.

Is it important for the EU to keep the project running?
Why should it not keep the EaP or a similar initiative running? The EU made the commitment that it wants to engage with those countries, support reforms and tackle problems together in an increasingly institutionalised manner. As any notion of membership perspective is difficult EU internally, the incentives were increased in what the EU is good at: access to internal market as goal of the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreements, and exchange of expertise and experience in governance issues. The EU needs to stay engaged in order to not disappoint ist partners that want to cooperation. The EU also needs to stay engaged because it must set a clear signal that it does not buy into the current Kremlin rhetoric of treating this region as “spheres of influence”.

Maybe is it important for Russia to disrupt the project?
From foreign policy perspective, it is the right and task of governments to pursue the national interests of their countries. In this regard, Russia can indeed decide its foreign policy in opposition to EU efforts, but this needs to be down within the current International law framework.

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