Domestic challenges overshadow ten-year anniversary of EU’s Eastern Partnership

Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev, President of the European Council Donald Tusk, Ukrainian President Petro during a family picture for the 10 years anniversary of EU-Eastern Partnership at the European Council in Brussels, Belgium, 13 May 2019. EPA-EFE/STEPHANIE LECOCQ [EPA-EFE/STEPHANIE LECOCQ]

The strategic interests of Ukraine and the EU are “exactly the same”, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said on Tuesday (14 May) on the sidelines of a summit marking a decade of the Eastern Partnership (EaP) in Brussels.

“Let’s replace the use of arms by the rule of law, this is something we must strive for every day,” Juncker said. “And we must also put an end to bilateral conflicts between different countries of eastern Europe.”

“We have to have peace in our immediate neighbourhood. Otherwise we won’t be able to mobilise all the energies that we could to make progress towards cohesion among our countries,” Juncker told the audience in Brussels.

The Commission President also called for patience and determination as Ukraine tries to align itself with the EU bloc.

The recent Ukraine elections were the elephant in the room at the event marking the 10th anniversary of the alliance, which aims to bring Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine closer to the bloc.

Although he has backed Ukraine’s pro-European aspirations, incoming president Volodymyr Zelenskiy is an unknown quantity, a former comedian with no political experience, who will have to face off Moscow, which annexed Crimea in 2014 and supported a rebellion in eastern Ukraine that killed more than 10,000 people and still simmers on.

European Council President Donald Tusk last week told reporters Zelenskiy had promised to pursue reforms to strengthen democracy in Ukraine.

Outgoing President Petro Poroshenko called on Eastern Partnership countries to cooperate more with EU countries, as well as implement the reforms rolled out in recent years.

Poroshenko also said that energy security of the entire European continent, and not just the Eastern Partnership countries, should be a priority.

“I want to say that we need to believe that the next 10 years will be a success story, and maybe in 10 years we will gather here and say – yes, that’s what happened. Two decades of the Eastern Partnership have been more successful than the first,” he said.

“Just follow Poroshenko’s example,” Poroshenko told his successor Zelenskiy, whose European aspirations had been questioned during the election campaign.

Uncertain path

On Monday (13 May) European Council President Donald Tusk hosted a celebratory dinner for the six heads of state or government of the EaP partner countries. President Juncker, Foreign Affairs High Representative Federica Mogherini and Commissioner Johannes Hahn, as well as Radosław Sikorski and Carl Bildt, former foreign ministers of Poland and Sweden respectively and initiators of the Eastern Partnership framework back in 2008, were also in attendance.

According to EU sources, the initial idea for the purpose of the meeting was “to develop the Eastern Partnership agenda beyond 2020″, but that was dropped by EU foreign ministers in their last gathering.

Juncker’s remarks came a day after EU foreign ministers and the six Eastern Partnership countries downgraded a celebratory statement. Meant to be signed by all participants, it was turned into a chairperson statement signed only Mogherini.

According to sources, the change came due to Azerbaijan’s dismay over the failure to mention territorial integrity in the text. Tensions are still high between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Azerbaijan’s breakaway region Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan voiced his concerns over Azerbaijani ceasefire violations to Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev and discussed the current situation on the Artsakh borders.

The statement did not feature a concrete offer of EU membership and acknowledgement of the EaP country’s “European aspirations”.

“We reaffirm the joint commitments enshrined in the Eastern Partnership Summit declarations; and to underline our firm intention to carry them forward,” the statement said.

Such wording, in the weeks ahead of the anniversary meeting, had particularly displeased Ukraine and Georgia. Although both countries, as well as Moldova, have already concluded Association Agreements with the EU that include free-trade and visa-liberalisation, none of the countries appears to be close to EU accession.

Sweden’s foreign minister Margot Wallström said during the event that several countries participating in the EU’s Eastern Partnership could still become EU members within 10 years.

“It would be very natural if some states, possibly, joined the EU until this time,” said Wallström.

Polish foreign minister Jacek Czaputowicz called for an upgraded Eastern Partnership which besides closer ties with the EU and a free-trade zone among the six members, could include “the creation of some instruments” such as a permanent secretariat of Eastern Partnership countries in Brussels for direct contact with the EU institutions and a rotating presidency of Eastern Partnership countries to deal directly with the six-month rotating EU presidencies.

Poland, together with Sweden, was one of the main initiators of the EaP at the Prague Summit in May 2009.

The next Eastern Partnership summit could take place either this summer, or in the first half of 2020.

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