The European Commission is warming to the idea of offering more ambitious integration plan to the three Eastern partners of Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, an EU official has said.
Calls for a more ambitious policy in the East with the three countries, all of which have signed association agreements with the EU and harbour ambitions to one day join the bloc, have been long echoed by the European Parliament.
So far, the EU executive has been cautious to endorse the plan for the group, often referred to as the Trio, wary that more perks for the associated countries may irritate the three other Eastern partners – Armenia, Azerbaijan and Belarus.
However, the question of deepening ties with the Trio “is on the agenda more than ever right now, especially with the current situation in the partnership,” according to Katarína Mathernová, Deputy Director-General of the European Commission’s department for neighbourhood and enlargement.
It appears EU countries are increasingly interested in deepening ties with the three Eastern allies, spurred on by a political crisis in Georgia, continuing anti-government protests in Belarus, the fallout from the Armenian-Azerbaijani war and a frosty relationship between Moscow and Brussels.
The European Commission increasingly hears comments about a more tailor-made approach for the Trio, and at a recent meeting of EU countries Germany raised the issue of what more should be done for the three countries, Mathernová told a webinar on Thursday (4 March).
Meanwhile, the bloc’s diplomatic branch, the European External Action Service (EEAS), remains watchful of the possible effects of further “differentiation” for Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.
“We don’t want to send a message, for example, that the very strong judicial reform efforts in Armenia are not recognised by the EU as well,” said head of EEAS division for Eastern partnership Richard Tibbels said.
“I have to say, I don’t think we should do this in a way which says there is one set of three countries and another set of three countries, I think we have to be careful that we look at this perhaps in a more functional and sectoral way,” he added.
Western Balkans and Associated Trio: Who’s ahead?
Meanwhile, official EU accession candidates and the three associated partners are not far apart in terms of Western integration, a recently published study revealed.
A comparison of the Commission’s yearly reports on EU hopefuls in the Western Balkans, – Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia – and the progress of agreement implementation with Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, suggested the Balkans are a bit ahead on the political-legal front, whereas the Eastern Europeans have advanced much more in terms of trade and economic cooperation.
The authors argue for an overhaul of the EU’s enlargement and neighbourhood policies, partly to strengthen incentives to drive forward political and economic reforms in the would-be accession countries.
The Commission could use similar quantified ratings and tie EU aid to performance on these metrics, the authors said.
“We can go further and, in terms of financial assistance, we can have the concept of progressive accession to the structural funds that would indeed be delivering on the ‘more for more’ slogan, but every step towards fuller financial assistance would be linked quantified ratings of the kinds that we’ve developed in the paper,” said Michael Emerson, senior research fellow at Brussels-based CEPS think tank.
Mathernová agreed that the EU has “loaded the the association agreements and the DCFTAs with quite a lot of expectations and I would say regulatory burden on the shoulders of our partners, in fact, going beyond what happens in the pre-accession phase.”
The Commission is now looking areas where the cooperation can be deepened, with sight set on the digital market as the regulatory setup in this area is developing dynamically both in the EU and partner countries.
“Now, I don’t think that we should we can or should oversell this, we have to go step by step,” the official added.