Fragility and tensions in EU’s Eastern Partnership

Editor’s Blog: Produced in collaboration with the EU Buzz team 

As part of the European Union’s Global Strategy and European Neighbourhood Policy, the EU has a special relationship with its six Eastern neighbours: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova  and Ukraine. This relationship is known as the Eastern Partnership (EaP). The objective of the initiative is to deliver tangible results for citizens across the region. However, since its launch in 2009, the actual impact of the Eastern Partnership has been constantly questioned. 

In a move which highlights the fragility and tensions of the relationships, Belarus has recently suspended its participation in the Eastern Partnership framework. This “break” comes despite a €3 billion comprehensive plan for a democratic Belarus, announced in May by the EU, and adds new challenges regarding the future of Europe’s Neighbourhood Policy.  

According to the EU Commission the EaP has been a success: “Trade between the EU and Eastern partner countries has nearly doubled in the last decade. The EU is the first trading partner for Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine and second biggest for Armenia and Belarus. Furthermore, over 185,000 small- and medium-sized companies in the Eastern partners have benefitted from EU funding, creating or sustaining 1.65 million jobs.” These claimed achievements have been as a result of a decade of work towards Association Agreements, including Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Areas, a Comprehensive Enhanced Partnership Agreement, Visa Facilitation and Readmission Agreements, visa liberalisations and Partnership priorities.

The Eastern Partnership is said to go “beyond relations with governments”. Partnerships with key stakeholders, such as civil society organisations, have the objective of building bridges between citizens of the Eastern Partnership countries and the European Union. In this respect, the EU has funded the EaP Civil Society Forum which is a unique, multilateral platform for experience-sharing, mutual learning, support and partnership building. The purpose of the Forum is to enhance the promotion of democracy, the rule of law and advance key reforms in the countries. However, in reality the European Union is fighting an uphill battle to gain credibility and presence in the EaP countries. Its relationships are with very few, carefully selected, pro-EU civil society organisations who are seen by other organisations in the countries as not speaking for those excluded from the Forum. 

In effect, the EU is an external donor and an opposition to any Russian influence in the region. The Eastern Partnership is essentially at the centre of a tug of war between the European Union and Russia. 

By focussing on civil society and less on government diplomacy, where frankly speaking the EU has very little clout, the European Union hopes to influence the promotion and take up of European democratic values. By creating a welcomed civil society space, the EU intends to forge a basis for policy dialogue with the partner countries on its terms. By developing strategic partnerships with key supportive civil society organisations, which are in the main struggling for funding, the EU Institutions hope to strengthen cooperation, increase the leadership skills of civil society activists, and engage with social partners such as trade unions and employers’ organisations. This is a long term strategy. 

The Eastern Partnership has delivered some concrete positive results but more tangible benefits for citizens, on both the European and EaP side, need to be proven for these to have any meaningful value. Most Europeans are unaware of the existence of an Eastern Partnership, and few will be able to name the countries which are included. The value of the EU, surveyed from the EaP viewpoint, is likely to produce a wide range of answers which may not be perceived as flattering for the EU. 

As both EaP and EU countries exit the pandemic crisis, a focus on recovery, growth, opening the economy and travel will be everyone’s priorities. Tensions in the region will also remain high on the agenda. Strengthening democratic institutions and the rule of law are key preferences for stability and regional peace. Open and transparent citizen engagement is essential to address these issues. However, these civil society dialogues cannot take place in isolation, led by the European Union and away from policy makers and government institutions, they must be collaborative and productive to be effective. 

After more than 10 years of close cooperation, direct actions for citizens in the six Eastern countries have been few despite the structured engagement with civil society organisations, and substantial financial support. The visibility of the European Union is not considered to be significant and there is little engagement of  people at a local level and especially youth in these countries.

If good governance, democracy, the rule of law and human rights are fundamental values that lie at the heart of the EU’s objectives for the Eastern Partnership, then the EU must demonstrate its impact in the region and its ability to constructively engage with the governments of partner countries for the benefit of society. Both European citizens and those from the Eastern partnership region need to see the strengthen of the rule of law, the independence, impartiality, efficiency and accountability of justice systems, the reinforcing of public administration and the implementation of anti-corruption mechanisms as evidence that the European Union is adding value in the region – This cannot be achieved solely through the EU Institutions liaisons with EU funded civil society and media. 

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