Relations between the EU and its eastern neighbours are faltering. But a combination of renegotiated trade agreements and digital connectivity could reverse the tide, writes Dan Dalton.
Dan Dalton is the CEO of the British Chambers of Commerce in Brussels and a former MEP.
The EU’s Eastern Partnership has been the flagship initiative of the EU’s engagement with the six key former Soviet republics on Europe’s Eastern borders since its inauguration in Prague in 2009. But in this often troubled region, a reset is now urgently needed. Existing EU efforts to strengthen relations are stalling and, in many cases going backwards.
Armenia and Azerbaijan went to war over Nagorno Karabakh last year. Ukraine is still fighting a conflict with Russian-backed rebels in Donbas.
And after the hijacking of a Ryanair flight in Minsk, EU-Belarusian relations are at an all-time low, with Belarus attempting to use refugees as a way to destabilise Europe’s borders and recently withdrawing from the Partnership altogether.
Relations are also rocky with Georgia – arguably the most stable and Western-facing of these countries despite its ongoing Russian occupation.
Even here, in the country that many hoped might compensate for its neighbours’ troubles, the Georgian government’s withdrawal from the Charles Michel agreement earlier this year and subsequent spat over EU funds have demonstrated how quickly political progress can be undone.
This drift does not have to be permanent: Georgia remains an essential strategic partner for the West. Its continued commitments to partner with the EU are reflected in widespread public support for integration. The EU also counts on a deep well of public support elsewhere in its eastern neighbourhood.
Nevertheless, with partners in the region veering away from the EU, these are worrying signs. What is required is a refreshed approach to Eastern Partnership countries, which explores new avenues for engagement and an updated plan for their long-term economic integration into Europe.
The EU still has powerful tools at its disposal. It is the main trading partner for Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova, and has comprehensive trade or partnership agreements with all of the countries in the Partnership.
Many of these are now outdated and could be improved. Making amendments to these agreements could be Europe’s strongest weapon in its arsenal and the best option for bringing these countries back into the European sphere.
Boosting the region’s digital connectivity with Europe is another answer. Europe can lead the development of digital infrastructure and connectivity between the two areas as the best means to ensure closer economic and cultural integration.
Digitalisation not only brings significant productivity gains but also helps to promote innovation in high value-add industries. From the EU side, more excellent connectivity will provide opportunities to work with governments to strengthen civil society, embed cooperation in the digital economy and integrate partnership countries into the EU’s regulatory framework.
The EU’s partners must, however, play by the rules. Last year, Georgia further raised eyebrows in Europe when it seized control of Georgian telecoms company Caucasus Online, freezing out its investors and disrupting efforts to make Georgia a telecoms hub as part of the more comprehensive Digital Silk Way project.
This dispute, widely criticised across Europe, including by the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission, remains unresolved and has raised serious questions over Georgia’s commitment to the rule of law. Its implications for deepening connectivity are equally worrying.
It is clear that the EU is losing ground throughout the countries of the Eastern Partnership. But a different path is available to governments in the region, one that is more prosperous and more in keeping with their citizens stated wishes.
The EU must continue to make a case for connectivity’s economic value and, despite recent political tensions, as a catalyst for the region’s broader cultural and political development.
A commitment to helping them come into the European and Western sphere, mainly through digital infrastructure, whilst maintaining a robust commitment to the rule of law and broader European values will be vital for the survival of the Partnership. It is a partnership worth keeping, but it needs commitment from both sides to keep it alive.
[Edited by Alice Taylor]