A low-key Eastern Partnership Summit

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Flags of the Eastern Partnership countries. [Council]

Instead of grand declarations, a low-key Eastern Partnership Summit focusing on concrete deliverables can be just what both the EU and the EaP countries need, write Igor Merheim-Eyre and Katarzyna Sobieraj.

Igor Merheim-Eyre is a research fellow at the University of Kent. Katarzyna Sobieraj is a policy adviser to Bogdan Zdrojewski MEP (Poland, EPP).

When former British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan was asked about the most challenging part of his time as a leader, he famously responded ‘events, my dear boy, events’. Today, in anticipation of the upcoming Eastern Partnership (EaP) Summit in Brussels (24 November), experts and pundits seem to lament the lack of excitement around the meeting of leaders. For many, the Summit is a non-event lacking ambition.

However, as the past has shown, eventful EaP summits full of grand initiatives and declarations are no guarantee of success in practice. In the past, the Riga Summit proved more fruitful than the ill-fated Vilnius Summit, especially in terms of bringing to the forefront the lack of progress on key reforms in the partner countries, while also providing a platform for discussion with Belarus in the context of worsening regional security in Eastern Europe.

In this sense, Riga proved that successes of the EaP can be measured differently. Among others, it highlighted that more emphasis needs to be put on a two-fold approach composed of both an honest discussion about the domestic situation in each EaP country and an appraisal of practical deliverables (of which the Commission’s 2020 Deliverables are a good starting point).

This does not mean having to choose between ‘political’ or ‘technical’ approach to the EaP; this is a false dichotomy because, in terms of delivering benefits for the citizens of the EaP countries, the two are not mutually exclusive.

Firstly, it means that our norms and values cannot be communicated simply by unveiling ever-new initiatives without understanding the successes or failures of those already in place. Spreading values requires concrete and practical steps backed up by progress and critical appraisal.

The average citizen remains largely uninformed about high-levels Summits, and he or she will remain unconvinced of ‘European values’ if there is no improvement in either their socio-economic situation, nor in the individual state’s governance.

In the case of Moldova, it is hard to see how norms and values can be embedded when people are struggling with basic life needs, oligarchy manipulates the political system, and emigration continues to hamper the country’s economic potential.

According to the latest EBRD’s strategy for Belarus, following 19 years of continuous growth, Belarus’ economy contrac­­ted in 2015, shrinking by an estimated 3.9% year-on-year. After two years of recession, Belarus’s economy is growing again but growth in 2017 is forecast at 1.5% and 2.0% in 2018.

The economic stagnation and the government’s attempt to increase revenue by imposing a ‘parasite tax’ in February 2017 led to widespread protests against worsening social conditions and the poor state of the public finances.

Without an improvement in basic conditions, ‘norms promotion’ remains shallow and may even become counter-productive. This is not a question of transactionism, but the most effective way of showing the European Union as a force for good, capable of producing tangible benefits for those who matter the most – the citizens.

Secondly, a ‘megaphone diplomacy’ (to use Commissioner Hahn’s words) is not always the best strategy for achieving success. When taking into account the security situation of our Eastern partners, low-key dialogue and small steps (for example, in the improvement of the political situation in Belarus), can often be more productive.

The EU’s recent rapprochement with Belarus, undertaken by the Commission and the External Action Service, is an important step in this direction. Despite criticism from the country’s political opposition, a well-defined but low-key dialogue that puts the EaP countries’ political and economic sovereignty at its centre and helps to diversify their foreign policy, is in the best interest of both the EU and the individual country.

In this context, the multilateral dimension of the Eastern Partnership is particularly crucial for countries such as Belarus, since it provides the possibility to remain within the scheme without risking Russia’s retaliation.

The example of Armenia, which joined the Eurasian Economic Union in 2015 and signed the ‘Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement’ with the EU in 2017, shows, even though in a limited form, that the diversification is possible without forcing countries to choose between two geopolitical projects.

On the other hand, greater flexibility in engagement does not mean that the EU should abandon its values. Removing sanctions and engaging in dialogue with the Belarusian authorities was a positive step, but the EU needs to continue to apply pressure on Minsk to ensure that no backsliding takes place.

Therefore, while acknowledging the current geopolitical challenges, the EU must ensure that today’s geopolitical situation is not exploited by segments of the Belarusian (but also the other countries’) government to justify lack of reforms or, worse, continued repression.

Crucially, as signs of cautious change appear, it is important to continue engaging the society as a whole, moving ahead with visa facilitation as a priority and fostering closer people-to-people contact. At the same time, we need to watch for developments within the administration, for example, small steps in border management cooperation where increasingly issues such as human rights are discussed in a low-key setting, and one can see positive developments and changing of mentalities.

To conclude, a Summit that will be low-key and focusing on concrete deliverables can be just what the doctor ordered, and what both the EU and the EaP countries need. Big declarations have often proved unable to make a considerable long-term impact and it is now time for more flexibility, while communicating the benefits of closer relations through concrete deliverables.

Crucially, the EU should not be afraid of undertaking small steps. They may not provide as shiny photo opportunities as they will the much-needed support in strengthening reforms and dialogue. That way, small but indispensable steps in our Eastern policy can turn into bold leaps forward.