To Sleep, Perchance to Reform: The Continued Relevance of the EU’s Eastern Partnership

By Emmet Tuohy

Much as the related “Ukraine fatigue” pandemic swept Washington in the aftermath of the 2004-05 Orange Revolution, Eastern Partnership (EaP) fatigue is alas an increasingly common illness among many contemporary observers, both within the EU and in the six partner countries. Even in Tallinn—the capital of one of the most enthusiastic and effective supporters of the EaP—one occasionally hears critiques (if more often whispered or off-the-record) that the initiative is “irrelevant” or “ineffective.”  And its showcase event, the biennial Eastern Partnership Summit, was (accurately) described as “low-key” and “aimed at avoid[ing] drama.”  Following Shakespeare’s Danish prince—who was actually, frequent misquoting aside, talking about a rather more final state of repose—are the EaP’s dreams of ever-closer European integration eastward  simply dead?  Or, like Hamlet, has the initiative found a reason to keep going?

In a generally fair-minded analysis, my EDSN colleague Michael Cecire still dismisses the EaP’s signature 2020 Deliverables—the concrete set of objectives launched at the 2015 Summit and refined before the 2017  edition that that serve as the fundamental blueprint for action under the initiative—merely as a way of “selling” the EaP as “a cooperative platform for reform.” But has the Eastern Partnership ever been anything but such a platform, at least at its core?

Certainly, it’s true that there have been considerable differences of opinion among EU member states since  the EaP was launched in 2009. These differences remain salient along several fault lines, whether it is the level of attention being paid to the East (at the expense of the broader European Neighborhood Policy, which also includes the countries on the southern and eastern shores of the Mediterranean); the degree to which the initiative should prioritize political values over strategic interests; the desirability of differentiation, or “more for more” in past jargon; and most of all, whether those EaP countries that desire it should have the possibility of someday attaining membership in the EU itself.

Yet despite the frequent criticism of the EaP as being insufficiently geopolitical, or of being overly technocratic, this “cooperative platform” is essentially what it has always been—and recently, it has done this type of cooperation increasingly well. Certainly, those of a more realist foreign-policy bent can find fault with the earnestly naïve tone of EU officials when they speak on the issue—whether it was former European Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighborhood Policy Štefan Füle in 2013 rejecting the very concept of “zero-sum games,” or current Commission Vice President Federica Mogherini earlier this month stressing that “our friendship and partnership with our eastern partners is never against anyone, it is always cooperative, and we never think in a logic of spheres of influence.”

Nevertheless, while Cecire acknowledges many of the headline agreements that have emerged from the Eastern Partnership—such as the 5 visa liberalization/facilitation agreements or 4 association/partnership agreements (with Belarus not included in either, and with negotiations ongoing with Azerbaijan on the latter), it is important to note that these have all come from the bilateral dimension of the EaP, which is only one part of the proverbial story.

Especially after the reforms adopted during the 2017 Summit—which streamlined the institutional architecture of the initiative, consolidating the four thematic platforms and tying them more closely to the political work of the EaP itself—it is the multilateral dimension of the Partnership that plays the biggest role in delivering tangible results to actual people in the six partner countries. But how?

To cite only a few examples, in this dimension the EU, its members, and the partner countries have worked actively in ensuring that businesses both large and small have access to funding (with over €1.5 billion provided thus far since the launch of the EaP), in promoting greater energy efficiency and security through new technology and new interconnector investment, in creating greater educational opportunities to growing numbers of students and professionals through the Erasmus + and other programs, and in opening up new transport routes between EaP and EU countries, including through a new EU-Armenia aviation agreement initialed at the Summit (calling to mind the infamous quote by Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary that the low-cost airline “has done more for European integration than vast waves of European bureaucracy.”)

In short, the thematic platforms—and the specific subject-area panels they contain, all of which meet on a biannual basis—are not just meetings for meetings’ sake, and do not include only diplomats or international relations specialists (even if, surely ironically, Estonian foreign minister Sven Mikser along with my fellow international relations specialists and I are visible in the Public Adminstration Reform panel image that illustrates Cecire’s article), but primarily bring together working-level officials who can together cooperate to bring about very specific solutions to shared problems in clearly defined ways.

Certainly, the EU can always improve on the way in which it discusses the nature of the reform process, and “do this because we did it” is not always the most compelling argument. However, while Cecire concludes that the “organic case for reform should develop in parallel to, and grow out of, conditional processes,” one should question how “organic” any reform process really is—or how lasting it would be—if its implementation grew out of the carrots of conditionality imposed from outside. Certainly, European examples are valuable—especially of those countries that themselves emerged from the legacy of Soviet rule, as did Estonia and its Baltic partners. In the end, however, it is regular engagement in the less glamorous, less “geopolitical” sectors of government work by the people of the region themselves—as actually takes place in the EaP multilateral track—that will bear the most organic fruit (and fruit that’s sustainable and locally-grown, to boot!)

For those countries that have made the most progress towards reform already, however, these sectoral partnerships are in reality the source of bitter disappointment. But kindly permit a small digression, a brief tale that illustrates why one really should not underestimate the degree to which narrowly-tailored strategic partnerships can evolve into far more profound and consequential forms of cooperation.

Once upon a time, there was a group of countries that, for various geopolitical and economic reasons, agreed to pool certain energy and industrial resources together for their mutual benefit. This partnership chose to call itself by the stirringly inspiring poetic title of “Coal and Steel Community,” which non-specialists will most assuredly be forgiven for not having heard of. But perhaps its modern name—after a few mergers and treaty updates along the way—might be more familiar: the European Union.

As Brussels has continually—if perhaps self-servingly—stressed, the EaP is an initiative created by the choice of the partner countries. The partner countries really do have agency in the process—and with the quill in their own hands, it is up to them whether this play of reforms and integration ultimately ends in tragedy—or comedy.

Emmet Tuohy is senior research fellow at the Estonian School of Diplomacy and a fellow of the Eurasian Democratic Security Network. A former senior researcher at the Estonian Center of Eastern Partnership (2016-2018), Tuohy was closely involved with the conceptualization and implementation of the official EaP events—notably the e-Partnership Conference, the Business Forum, and the Civil Society Conference—held during the Estonian presidency of the Council of the European Union in 2017. The opinions reflected here are, however, solely the views of the author. 

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