A DIPLOMATIC FAILURE?

European Voice
November 28, 2013

With only two deals pending with Georgia and Moldova, Andrew Gardner
asks what the EU can learn from its Eastern Partnership project

On Friday, a day after Ukraine's President Viktor Yanukovych announced
that he would not sign political and trade deals with the European
Union, Stefan Fule, the European commissioner for the neighbourhood,
was asked whether the EU's Eastern Partnership was a diplomatic
failure.

It was a pointed question, but also to the point. The biggest of the
EU's six eastern neighbours in the EU's Eastern Partnership, Ukraine,
had just decided to "pause" talks with the EU. Armenia had said in
September that it would join Russia's Eurasian Union rather than
strike agreements with the EU.

Belarus has never shown an interest in the partnership on offer from
the EU, while Azerbaijan wants to cast it aside. And so, at the Eastern
Partnership summit today and tomorrow (28-29 November), the EU will put
its name to agreements with only two countries, Moldova and Georgia -
both tiny and poor and neither in control of all of its territory.

A natural conclusion to these widening differences would be to abandon
the Eastern Partnership and pursue bilateral approaches.

Predictably, Fule, the European commissioner for the neighbourhood,
saw things differently. "I don't see a need [for introspection],"
he said. He described association agreements - the political deal on
offer, of which free trade is a part - as "an instrument with huge
transformative power, second only to enlargement".

He has a strong case. Four years ago, when the Eastern Partnership
was established, the EU's offer of access to the EU's market was seen
as vague and too remote for most of the neighbours.

Now, Georgia and Moldova will initial political and trade deals,
and until September Armenia was on the cusp of doing so. Ukraine has
already initialled the deals; when its politicians find the will,
they can pull the deals off the shelf and sign them.

A policy approach that has brought the EU's relations with its eastern
neighbours to this point cannot, and will not, be easily discarded.

But, whatever Fule says, there will be plenty of introspection
following Ukraine's decision.

LESSONS TO BE LEARNED

What lessons are there to learn from recent months and, in particular,
from relations with Ukraine?

Russia has revealed its character: Russia has held back its neighbours
by twisting arms, a point that EU leaders have underlined by openly
attacking the economic pressure applied by Russia to Ukraine in
particular. (Even Moldova has been held back, under Russian pressure
postponing EU-related energy measures required by the European Energy
Community). West Europeans too have clarity - that Russia is a bully,
as its post-communist members have long pointed out.

The EU has shown greater interest in its eastern neighbourhood
than ever before and this has produced results. In particular,
the engagement of Angela Merkel, Germany's chancellor, has been a
boost for the EU, has helped reform in Moldova especially, has put
necessary pressure on Ukraine and has, overall, provided a back-stop
against Russian pressure.

The EU has all along been dealing with a multi-speed region, but it
now has a clearer sense of the speed of individual countries. Midgets
- Moldova and Georgia - have been willing to move forward fast. The
giant, Ukraine, is lumbering along, but generally forward, in a
highly unpredictable fashion. Armenia pushed ahead technically,
but its political will was questionable. The two other countries in
the region have much reason to be interested in Europe - Europe is
Azerbaijan's new, best energy market, while for Belarus Europe is a
counter-weight to Russia - but they show next to no interest in what
the EU is offering.

Improbable changes can happen. In 2004, large volumes of Russian
money helped Yanukovych as he fought, ultimately unsuccessfully,
for the presidency. As president since 2010, Yanukovych has zigzagged
towards the EU, to the point this summer and autumn when Russia felt
it had to apply overt and blatant pressure.

It is unwise to pin too much hope on individual politicians. Since
Ukraine initialled the trade and political agreements in spring
2012, the chances of the deals being signed have depended on
Yanukovych. All along, Yanukovych has kept his thinking largely to
himself. He apparently gave no hint that he was willing to heed EU
advice and grant a partial pardon to his jailed political rival,
Yulia Tymoshenko. Only recently did he begin to tell the EU just how
worried he was about Russian economic pressure and about the state
of the country's finances.

The EU can be confident about ambitious political and trade deals
in the region only when the region has changed more. Ukraine's and
Armenia's decisions not to press ahead with deals with the EU showed
how closely they remain tied to Russia, economically and strategically.

WHAT NEXT FOR THE EASTERN PARTNERSHIP?

When the Eastern Partnership summit ends tomorrow (29 November),
it should be clearer whether the EU has learnt those lessons and
whether its neighbours have drawn the same lessons.

Some conclusions will be drawn, but may not be publicly expressed. For
instance, that Ukraine and other eastern EU neighbours should now
expect the EU to be more wary. If Ukraine signs the political and
trade deals, possibly at the next EU-Ukraine summit in the spring,
it can expect the ratification process, which typically lasts two to
three years, to be difficult.

Another possible conclusion is that the EU should adopt an approach of
'strategic patience' towards Russia and its relations in the region.

Russia's bullying behaviour lost it the support of the Georgian public
long ago, is now costing it support in Moldova, and damaging it in
the eyes of Ukrainians and Armenians.

However, the EU's policy cannot simply be passive; it will have to
decide what to do with its Eastern Partnership. Perhaps it should
deepen its relations in the region bilaterally. The case is strong.

The main elements of the EU's relations with the region - the political
'association' agreement, the trade deals and visa liberalisation -
are issues handled bilaterally. Some elements introduced in 2009 as
part of the Eastern Partnership (such as more tailored and specific
goals for individual countries, more conditions and the measuring of
progress) do not need to be part of a broader policy package. One of
the EU's principles in the region - more EU support for more reform -
encourages policymaking that is more differentiated and bilateral.

But the Eastern Partnership also introduced potentially useful
multilateral ways of developing relations between the EU and between
the eastern partners themselves - in the form of summits, meetings
of foreign ministers, a parliamentary assembly (Euronest) and forums
for civil society and business.

Ultimately, Russia's pressure on its neighbours may guarantee that
the Eastern Partnership continues in its current form. But the form
of policies is less important than the aims: to make these countries
less peripheral to Europe and the world and less vulnerable to Russia.