The Commission’s Eastern Partnership strategy is disappointing

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

A man holds a Georgian flag in downtown Tbilisi during the celebrations of a political and trade agreement with the European Union in Tbilisi, Georgia, 27 June, 2014. [Zurab Kurtsikidze/EPA/EFE]

Distance should not be a criterion: Georgia is better prepared for EU membership than the frontrunners of the Western Balkans, writes Andrius Kubilius.

Andrius Kubilius is a Member of the European Parliament, Co-President of the Euronest Parliamentary Assembly, former Prime Minister of Lithuania.

While the coronavirus dominates the public sphere, there are still ongoing issues despite the pandemic. These issues need to be discussed, although they may attract smaller audience at this trying time.

Recently, the European Commission produced a very important document with the aim of laying out the vision on the future of the Eastern Partnership (EaP) policy beyond 2020.

Before the pandemic, we, the supporters of the EaP in the European Parliament, as also Ukrainians, Georgians and Moldovans, were eagerly looking forward to this document. While awaiting this document we have discussed extensively, prepared and submitted strategic proposals, drafted the Trio Strategy – our vision for the future EaP. We were convinced, that the new European Commission, which voiced the ambition to be the “Geopolitical Commission” will live up to this ambition in drawing the guidelines for the long-term perspective of its Eastern policy, one of the most important geopolitical vectors for the EU.

However, after reading the document I was disappointed – there is no geopolitical ambition in this document. The usual watered-down phrases mean simply that the philosophy of kicking the can further down the road prevails. “No policy change, business as usual” – is the underlying concept of the Commission’s proposal. But that is not enough anymore, considering the geopolitical significance of the EaP region. It is not possible to consider the future of the EU EaP policy without delineating the geopolitically-based aggression of the Kremlin in this region and without clear geopolitical strategy of the EU towards the EaP region.

Our hopes ran high during the confirmation of the new Commission. During his hearings the incoming HR/VP Josep Borell firmly stated that the EU has a clear geopolitical objective – to assist in emerging of a belt of successful countries between the EU and Russia, and that such policy in a longer perspective would also help Russia to transform and to return to a democratic type development. However, our hopes did not materialise, at least for now, because there are no such objectives in the Commission’s document.

Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia can only succeed if the EU invests in their success. The EU should invest not only money, it should also invest policy-wise by formulating smart and effective EU strategy towards the EaP countries. Such strategy should define an ambitious perspective – if the EaP countries demonstrate progress in the European reforms, the EU also moves forward by availing new support mechanisms and instruments for them, and, in the final stages by opening the doors to full integration of these countries (not only of the Western Balkans).

Only such EU policy would help to retain the appetite for European reforms in these countries, indispensable for their success. If the EU continues to merely kick the can further down the road, we will witness a weakening pro-European motivation in the EaP region. Already now from the capitals of the EaP countries we can sometimes hear the words of disappointment and skepticism: “we will never be invited to the EU and NATO anyway”. When the virus of such skepticism will turn into pandemic in the EaP region it will be the end of any pro-European reforms. Only nice but empty statements will remain.

The EaP region finds itself in a politically difficult period. Not only the aggression of the Kremlin, but also political infighting and tensions in Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova raise challenges to the European reforms in these countries. An ambitious EU vision defining new period of the EaP policy, with new instruments, with new “more for more” conditions would be a much-needed geopolitical tool to re-charge and consolidate political will for pro-European reforms in the EaP countries. If the EU misses the opportunity to propose such vision, we must not be surprised to witness increasing erosion of reform processes in the region. The underlying reason for this will be erroneous EU geopolitical stance, or, rather, lack of geopolitical ambition.

It would be sufficient to begin with evaluating the progress and preparedness for EU integration objectively and based on the same criteria for EaP and the Western Balkan countries. We are very satisfied that the EU leaders demonstrate geopolitical ambition vis-a-vis Western Balkans and repeatedly stress that this region must be integrated into EU as soon as possible, otherwise Russia will occupy the vacuum there (it is rather strange that the same line of thinking is not applied vis-a-vis the EaP region). We are pleased, that Albania and North Macedonia will finally be invited to start the EU accession negotiations.

But it is important to remind, that according to expert evaluations published in 2018, Georgia was better prepared for the EU Membership than the frontrunner of the Western Balkans. Hence, the preparedness of a country for the EU Membership is not a criterion defining difference of EU policy towards the EaP and the Western Balkans. It is also quite obvious, that if the EU will continue hesitate to propose an ambitious EaP strategy, the Kremlin will destabilize the EaP region much easier than it would in the Western Balkans.

Usually, in a face of crisis the EU consolidates and finds necessary solutions. The EU will overcome the health crisis. It overcame financial crisis in 2008 and migration crisis in 2015. Once facing a crisis, we usually are quick to understand that it is not enough do nothing, just to once again kick the can further down the road.

I would not want to predict that an ambitious EU EaP policy will be brought about only when the EaP region will be struck by a big geopolitical crisis (most probably coming from the Kremlin). This would unavoidably mean a geopolitical crisis also for the whole EU. It would be much wiser to avoid such crisis. But for that to become a reality, we need an ambitious EU EaP policy already now. It should not matter that the distance between Skopje or Tirana and Moscow is much bigger than the distance between Kyiv or Tbilisi and Moscow. This distance must not define ambitions of Brussels, otherwise it would only mean that the Kremlin continues to retain a strange “veto” on the decisions in the EU capital.

I still hope that we can help the “Geopolitical Commission” to return its geopolitical ambitions. We will be working towards that goal in the European Parliament, despite the pandemic. Of course, the pandemics should not be used as an opportunity to mask EU geopolitical weakness vis-à-vis Russia.

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