An “Association Agreements plus” with a secretariat, a rotating presidency, and the creation of a regional economic area. These could be the next steps for the “Eastern Partnership” (EaP) launched 10 years ago, writes Prof. Jacek Czaputowicz.
Prof. Jacek Czaputowicz is Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.
Following the European Union’s enlargement in 2004, countries situated across the EU’s eastern border have become its closest neighbours. The Polish and Swedish diplomacies, together with some other EU member states, were involved in establishing a special partnership with six such countries: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. It was inaugurated in May 2009 during the Prague Summit and was labelled the “Eastern Partnership” (EaP). Ten years after its launch, we know it is still not perfect, as it constitutes a sort of a synthesis of political ambitions, strategic potential and geopolitical compromises. Yet, there is no other policy that would better embrace the complex nature of our links with our Eastern neighbours.
Ten years after its creation, the Eastern Partnership is in need of review to adapt it to the changing world and new geopolitical realities in the region. A new approach towards the future of the EaP in three distinctive areas is required: in the area of legal approximation, institutionalisation and sectoral cooperation.
As for legal approximation, it is done by implementing the Association Agreements, Partnership and Cooperation Agreements and Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreements. By fulfilling the provisions of the above-mentioned contractual relations, the EaP countries transpose into their national legal systems large parts of the EU’s acquis communautaire. Political reforms should strengthen public institutions, restore people’s trust and build resilience to internal and external pressures. They should result as well in a significant drop in corruption and strengthen the rule of law across the region. It is in our shared interest to create an area of security, stability and prosperity in the EU’s immediate neighbourhood.
Sometimes we hear voices saying that the specific goals of the Association Agreements were not ambitious enough, while others were set too highly. We should be able to review and amend them – just like we did when we recently added an energy annex to the EU-Ukraine agreement. It is crucial to make these agreements as relevant as possible for the changing times and challenges ahead, as well as to further enhance sectoral cooperation. We could call them “Association Agreements plus” to indicate a political process leading to their modernization.
The second area we should reflect on is the institutionalisation of the Eastern Partnership. To this end we could create a secretariat to manage the already existing system of the EaP platforms and panels. It could also serve as a tool to build common positions, present ideas and act more closely together as a regional group. It could have a light formula, be located in Brussels and involve seconded diplomats from the EaP countries.
A rotating presidency of the EaP countries could be also envisaged. It would allow for more cooperation with the troika of EU Presidencies and with EU institutions in planning and delivering the political agenda. The country holding the presidency could also host an annual high-level meeting on a subject that is important for further integrating the region with the EU. It would serve as a way to Europeanise their administrations, demonstrate the partner countries’ pro-European aspirations as well as to boost the EU’s and the EaP’s visibility across the region. Certainly, both – a secretariat and an EaP presidency – would give the countries of the region more ownership of the whole process.
The third area to be considered is enhancing sectoral cooperation. The list of EU agencies, programmes and instruments available for neighbouring countries ranges from customs cooperation and transport policies to joining the energy union or the digital union.
We do have many common interests, such as jointly tackling migratory flows and pressures. Three of the EaP countries (Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine) already enjoy visa free regimes, which enable people-to-people contacts and facilitate cooperation between border and asylum authorities. More partners should follow down this path.
Another important pillar of sectoral cooperation is connectivity. The new Indicative TEN-T Investment Action Plan provides funding for infrastructure investments worth almost €13 billion, which can translate, according to the European Commission data, to 4800 kilometres of roads and railways, 6 ports, and 11 logistics centres in the EaP countries. A regional roaming agreement among our partners would be the first step towards a common roaming space between the EU and the EaP, which should bring us closer together. Other areas of possible sectoral cooperation are energy security, environmental protection, border management, aviation safety, to indicate just a few.
Moreover, the EaP ministers could be invited on a regular basis to informal meetings of the EU sectoral Councils. We have done this before with the EFTA countries which can participate in meetings during Gymnichs or Trade Councils.
Even more ambitious would be the establishment of a regional economic area for the EaP countries, following the example of CEFTA created by Visegrad Four countries before their accession to the EU. The agreement still operates with success in the Western Balkans (with Moldova already a member of the agreement since 2007). It would certainly allow the EaP countries to integrate among themselves - and later with the EU countries – through the liberalisation of financial services or of the movement for qualified professionals.
Members of the Eastern Partnership do differ. They also demonstrate various aspirations when it comes to the level of cooperation they seek with the European Union. Yet, the Eastern Partnership still represents an approach they can all benefit from.
Ten years after its creation, the EaP holds the potential to bring our neighbours closer to the European Union. Together we should reflect on an ambitious political agenda and a narrative that will keep the EaP attractive for countries, but first and foremost – for the people.