In 2009 the Eastern Partnership, a project seeking closer ties between the EU and its Eastern European neighbours was proclaimed in Prague. Ten years later, the union is evaluating its progress and searching for prospective strategies. Whatever the future brings, it seems that this is likely to be a long-haul effort.
The European Union’s longest border is on its eastern flank, with the post-Soviet states of Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus. Across the Black Sea in the southern Caucasus lie three more former members of the USSR: Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. Traditionally, they have been viewed as buffers between Russia and the West, an area where Russia has long exercised its cultural and economic influence.
However, many of these countries have ambitions to integrate more closely into the European Union, whose lucrative trade area as well as a reputation for strong governance and equal standing among states are a powerful attraction.
To build on these facts a project called the Eastern Partnership was officially launched in Prague ten years ago during the Czech Republic’s presidency over the European Council.
EU politicians at the time stressed that it was not aimed at the other big player in the region – Russia, but rather as a common endeavour between EU members and the six eastern European partner states, seeking to boost their democracies and governance, while providing some of the benefits of closer integration within the European community.
Jaroslav Kurfürst, the Czech Republic’s former ambassador to Brussels, who is now the country's Special Envoy for the Eastern Partnership, says there was also another important component behind the project.
“The vision was to disrupt the geopolitical logic in the area, the system of power based international relations and come up with the anti-geopolitical logic, relying on rule-based international relations. The EU’s effort was not to get these countries into its orbit, but rather to promote democracy, the free choice of these countries, the rule of law, fight against corruption, civil society, human rights and more. That is the main effort of the Eastern Partnership.”
There were different propositions for what the Eastern Partnership should look like and EU’s East Central European member states played a big role in this process.
Both the Czechs and the Poles, the latter backed up by Sweden, submitted their proposals between 2007 and 2008.
Indeed, there are political analysts who have described the Eastern Partnership as a vehicle for influence for states such as Poland and the Czech Republic, both within the EU and in the Eastern European region, by leveraging it as an area of their expertise.
However, others have questioned whether the project has turned out to be as effective as originally intended.
Despite this, Mr. Kurfürst says the Czech Republic has left a distinguishable footprint, since the Eastern Partnership was announced in 2009.
“Besides the successful summit of 2009, the Czech Republic has been playing quite a strong role I would say. In particular we also put a strong emphasis on the role of civil society, rule of law, independent media and fighting corruption. We were of course trying to support the neighbour countries, which were in a difficult geopolitical situation. All of their governments are important partners for us. I think that this policy was at the heart of Czech government.”
The past 10 years in the region have been turbulent and, at times, the Eastern Partnership has seemed as too weak a force to promote its goals.
Often this has been the result of what some see as a geopolitical struggle in the region, played between Russia and the West, with the former operating in the logic of a zero-sum game.
“The vision was to disrupt the geopolitical logic in the area. The system of power based international relations and come up with the anti-geopolitical logic, relying on rule-based international relations.”
While he stresses that the Eastern Partnership is not directed against Russia, Mr. Kurfürst admits that diplomacy in the region often means dealing with what he calls the “elephant in the room”.
“Russia is a big power. It is a global power and unfortunately a really difficult one too. Especially when it comes to our Eastern Partners it committed some unacceptable things, such as violating the territory of its neighbour and breaking international law. However, it is clear that besides these regional dynamics Russia is global player and we have to take it into account.
“We have to stick to our principles and not be pushed by the nuclear and military power of Russia. I think it respects partners who are able to stand up for their own positions. However, at the same time it is a matter of fact that Russia is sitting in the Security Council, has nuclear weapons and the largest territorial mass. That is a matter of fact.”
This year, after 10 years of existence, experts and EU officials are looking into how the Eastern Partnership should evolve in the future.
While things have moved forward for many of the EU’s eastern partners, who have since signed treaties integrating their countries closer into the union’s market and given their citizens more freedom to seek employment in the EU, the most sought after prize, which was vaguely dangled in front of them in 2009, was full EU membership.
“Russia is a big power. It is a global power and unfortunately a really difficult one too. Especially when it comes to our Eastern Partners it committed some unacceptable things, such as violating the territory of its neighbour and breaking international law.”
This club invitation still seems very far away.
Mr. Kurfürst does not rule out the chance of eastern partners becoming full members in the future, but he says it is likely to be preceded by something else.
“Well, I think it was Woody Allen who said that it is hard to make predictions especially about the future. For the near future however, I believe the plan is clear. We have to properly implement the framework documents which were signed with the majority of Eastern Partnership countries. Secondly, we have to work on resilience, things such as societal resilience, security and economic resilience. We need to help these governments become more resilient.
“Then we will have to think about the possibilities of what to do more. How to give these countries more hope for the European perspective. Here you have tools and steps. Even if giving these countries EU membership after this long process is not a popular final goal for some current EU member states, you can see the likelihood of some next step. I think it is important for our partners and as the EU we will have to look into that file.”
The fact that the Czech Foreign Ministries Special Envoy for the Eastern Partnership stresses boosting resilience as a major factor is understandable.
Whether it is through a reliance on Russian gas supplies, the presence of frozen conflicts, or the weakness of independent media, the European Union’s eastern partners still face major challenges.
Another immediate issue is Britain’s planned exit from the European Union. So far, as a member state, Britain has been part of the Eastern Partnership and a very helpful ally for the Czech Republic in the region, says Mr. Kurfürst.
“It will affect the dynamics of the diplomatic discussions within the EU, because the UK had a strong voice and it was very close to ours. In that way we are losing an ally and an important partner. On the other hand we will definitely try as the Czech diplomatic service to keep our British partners on board and as close as possible to the policy. The British government is activating itself in strengthening resilience and support for the media. It is active in the region, so there are many ways through which to cooperate and we will definitely use those possibilities.”
In what way was the UK voice similar to yours?
“[Brexit] will affect the dynamics of the diplomatic discussions within the EU, because the UK had a strong voice and it was very close to ours. In that way we are losing an ally and an important partner.”
“The same values perhaps, the similar strategic approach. For example, for a Czech diplomat of my generation, the Eastern Partnership is a bit of a reminder of 1968 when the doctrine of limited sovereignty was applied to Czechoslovakia and we could not decide freely about ourselves. What the EU tried to offer those post-Soviet countries that are part of the eastern partnership, was to finish with that thinking of limited sovereignty and treat them as our sovereign partners who have their own statehood and history, as well as support them. I feel that this approach is shared by our British partners. That is our common ground.”
However Brexit turns out, when it comes to the Eastern Partnership the EU’s most pressing focus is likely to be achieving the largest possible progress in its 20 Deliverables for 2020 plan, which has set out targets to be achieved by next year in areas including governance, connectivity, society and economic development.
A recent review in March 2019 found that most of the targets are on track to be achieved, but found that there was only moderate progress in areas including the support for judicial reforms, the engagement of civil society organisations and environmental support.
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