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The Eastern Partnership – more than a beautiful idea.

It is easy to mock the Eastern Partnership (and the European Neighbourhood Policy) as well as their summits because here a beautiful idea – the west supports the east (and the south) on their way towards democracy and welfare – meets with the ugly reality write Gabriele Schöler
 and Stefani Weiss.

Finding compromises between the EU and its neighbours, especially with those six in the east, geographically so close to Russia, which eyes the EU’s engagement in the region with suspicion, is difficult. Given that opinions about relations with Russia are not the only point of divergence, it may be questioned whether the beautiful idea is good for anything at all.

EU leaves partners in suspense

No EU accession in sight for Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova in the years to come: this is, in a nutshell, the result of the Riga summit. The Joint Declaration of the Eastern Partnership summit has thus reiterated the Vilnius summit 18 months ago, and, in fact, it confirms once more one of the tenets of the European Neighbourhood Policy: being partner within the ENP does not lead straight to EU membership. “The Eastern Partnership is not for enlargement, it is for rapprochement,” as German Chancellor Angela Merkel stated.

The Declaration also adheres to the so-called “more-for-more” approach. Being introduced in 2013, it shall reward countries which make progress on reforms. Though Moldova has already been granted visa-free regime last year, it remains dubitable whether the country’s progress in terms of rule of law, border control etc. is not at least as little as Ukraine’s – or not even less. Georgia and Ukraine will still have to wait – and deliver on several issues, including secure IDs, better border control, and tackling corruption and organised crime. If they do so, there is an option for them to enjoy a visa-free regime, too, yet not on 1 Jan 2016 which they hoped for.

European neighbourhood in shambles

The Riga summit had at its core the Eastern Partnership countries and their perspectives. Yet the European Neighbourhood Policy includes more than the six Eastern partners. And what was considered a “ring of friends” has become a “ring of fire”: from the Russian-Ukrainian conflict over the war in Syria to the ongoing turmoil in Libya, or political instability in Egypt and Lebanon.

An “arc of instability” stretching from the EU’s eastern borders down to the Mediterranean basin has undermined its flagship European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP). This policy was designed to deliver prosperity, stability and democracy to countries surrounding the EU. It has manifestly failed and needs to be radically rethought.

ENP under review

In March this year, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini and EU Commissioner Johannes Hahn launched ideas on the EU strategy towards its neighbours in the east and south. Over the next months, these ideas need to be filled with concrete proposals for measures to be taken to make the EU’s policy towards its neighbours meaningful and effective. Mogherini and Hahn have now emphasized the need for dialogue with the ENP partner countries. “The new ENP must reflect the views and experience of our partners. It must not be patronising and condescending”, said Hahn on March 4.

In fact, as a recent publication (The EU neighbourhood in shambles – some recommendations for a new European neighbourhood strategy https://www.bertelsmann-stiftung.de/en/publications/publication/did/the-eu-neighbourhood-in-shambles/) of the German Bertelsmann Stiftung maintains, the EU ought to abandon the very concept of a homogeneous ‘neighbourhood’ in the face of glaring differences among the 16 countries affected, not least because some are uninterested in reform; others may even be failed states.

Yet Commissioner Hahn then also added that the EU must “stress its own interest when it discusses with its partners”. Unfortunately, EU member states are themselves pursuing divergent interests and goals which does not really facilitate dialogue with partner countries. Even more unfortunate is that different policy-making stakeholders within each individual EU member state do not always seem to agree on what policy to pursue.

The fundamental review of the ENP, which is to be finished by the end of this June, should lead to more differentiated, targeted measures to promote “transformational change” within neighbouring states ready to accept it. As a by-product, such measures would contribute to the newly stressed but self-evident goal of protecting Europe from the consequences of the instability in its neighbourhood.

DCFTA and other measures

According to the Bertelsmann Stiftung paper, the EU should offer revised incentives such as participation within the proposed ‘energy union’. Freer trade as offered in the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement with Ukraine depends on the country’s achievements in realising the rule of law. Other countries such as Tunisia would also like to obtain a DCFTA, yet whether these agreements truly aid rather than harm local economic development may still be considered an open question.

Other, and immediately effective, concrete measures are recommended: Existing visa regimes ought to be individually revised and EU programmes brought out that can enhance people-to-people contacts. Migration needs to be regulated in a much fairer way. Education and professional training in many countries ought to be managed and supported; student exchange programmes such as ERASMUS plus would be starting points which could fairly quickly and at rather low cost be adapted to the needs of neighbouring countries and their youth.

Such measures could, ultimately, help to fulfil Hahn’s demand that the EU, in the future, puts “a new emphasis on energy security and organised crime”, as well as “terrorism and the management of migration flows”.

A new ENP should embrace a wider range of actors, including civil society, promote entrepreneurship and help reform countries’ police and military forces.

The “neighbours of the neighbours”

Dialogue with “the neighbours of the neighbours”, or more precisely, other actors working in the region, needs to be strengthened, i.e. the US, Turkey, Iran, the Gulf states, and, of course, with Russia, once a modus vivendi with Moscow is found against the background of the conflict in Ukraine.

Russia and EU policy towards the country were, of course, also a point of contention at the Riga summit, which was the first one after the start of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. Some heads of government warned against Moscow’s real intentions in the region while others wanted to avoid confrontation, with French president François Hollande stressing, that “this partnership should not be a new source of conflict with Russia”. Needless to say that the name of Russia is nowhere to be seen in the final document, neither is Ukraine’s demand to condemn “Russian aggression”.

In consequence, the Declaration only underlines that summit participants “reaffirm the sovereign right of each partner freely to choose the level of ambition and the goals to which it aspires in its relations with the European Union”. This is not only in the interest of the neighbouring countries, but also in the EU’s and third actors’ own interests.

However, managing the major challenges must not be delegated to these states. Their views and aims do not always coincide with Europe’s (assuming the EU has a common view on given issues).

Connecting ENP and CFSP

The upcoming ENP review should be used to spell out much clearer the EU`s own interests, reassert common EU institutions in negotiating and working with partner countries and give them a central role in preventing and resolving conflicts as well as promoting democratic reform and economic stability. This revised ENP should help underpin the EU’s efforts to forge a genuine Common Foreign and Security Policy.

As the Bertelsmann paper concludes, “as long as the EU fails to take security-policy and geopolitical interests of these countries into account and answer the needs resulting from them, the ENP tools … cannot take effect. Any efforts to support the transformation of states around us towards peace, stability, democracy and economic welfare must be based on and backed by a truly common European foreign and security policy, which is, sadly, still lacking.”

Against this background, explicitly separating the ENP consultations from the CFSP review process does certainly not lead into the right direction.

Yet all in all, to come back to the initial question: the beautiful idea is worth it. Firstly, because on the practical level things do happen, though slowly, especially as regards economic relations and visa regulations. Secondly, because a certain peer-group pressure supports compliance with civic rules of the game. And thirdly, because these alliances, the European Partnership, the Mediterranean Union, and the ENP as a whole, gives partners a certain leeway to define their own course.

Written by Gabriele Schöler
 and Stefani Weiss. This is an abridged version of an article first published by Bertelsmann Stiftung in Guetersloh, Germany.

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