_ Irina Bolgova, Associate professor, Department of Applied Analysis and Research Fellow, the Center for Post-Soviet Studies MGIMO. Moscow, 24 November 2017.
On November 24, 2017, the fifth summit of the Eastern Partnership kicks off in Brussels. For the first time since the programme began in 2009, the summit will take place not in one of the Eastern European capitals, but in the capital of the united Europe, which is intended to emphasize consolidation and the high level of the EU’s attention to its eastern policy.
Some of the most frequent phrases used in the preparatory documents and speeches on the eve of the summit were “the need to revitalize” and “new dynamism.” They confirm that active search for new driving forces of interaction between the EU and the Eastern Partnership participants is underway. This programme became a symbolic quintessence of all political activity of the European Union towards the post-Soviet space. Like a prism, the Eastern Partnership reflected the main problems of shaping common foreign policy, principles of expanding influence on countries that do not have a direct perspective of the EU membership, as well as adequate forms of interaction in the context of acute destabilization in the post-Soviet space.
The aim of the previous summit, held in Riga in May 2015, was to formalize the EU intention to continue the programmeme after it had triggered the deep internal political crisis in Ukraine, a key participating country. Two years later, the goals of the summit were declared in a more positive key, but in essence, both contradictions within the EU and the growing caution in the European policies of the participating states still prevent the formation of a strategic agenda for the programmeme development.
A lot of attention is still paid to signals and symbols, and still there are contradictions. On the eve of the summit, there was a sharp discussion regarding terms that should appear in the final declaration. Azerbaijan and Armenia are concerned whether an article of “supporting territorial integrity” will be included and in what context; the president of Ukraine expressed dissatisfaction with the traditional replacement of the “European perspective” with “support of European aspirations.” These terminological discrepancies reflect the main problems of the programmeme target setting and the EU foreign policy towards the post-Soviet space in general. How to develop a common operational approach to intra- and inter-state conflicts, taking into account the available tools? How to solve the dilemma of Europeanization without enlargement of the EU? How to reconcile the significantly differing foreign policy strategies of the participating states within one regional initiative?
In this regard, the assessments of the achieved results of cooperation within the Eastern Partnership vary greatly, ranging from emphasis on successes in the implementation of FTA+ and visa-free regimes with three of the six countries, to a very sceptical attitude, primarily due to the relatively small project funding in the programme budget.
A more detailed analysis of the mechanisms for Eastern Partnership implementation, combined with a panoramic view of the instruments of the EU activities with respect to the eastern neighbours, highlights many more nuances.
In the policy of the European Union regarding the post-Soviet space, there has been a clear shift from the normative principles, shaped by the discourse on the need to promote liberal democratic values and based on the idea of rapprochement with the EU in exchange for domestic political reforms. This withdrawal is due to the lack of consensus on the minimum acceptable level of convergence of countries “with European aspirations” with the European Union. Gradual rejection of normative and political conditioning creates the abovementioned lacuna at the level of symbols.
However, at the level of implementation of various European projects and initiatives, such a softening will contribute to the expansion of the EU presence in the Eastern Partnership countries, regardless of their declared adherence to the idea of European integration. The activities of the European Union are increasingly focused on sectoral promotion of norms and standards, which create a broad and stable base for increasing influence.
As a result, the current level of cooperation demonstrates possible adaptation of the goals and objectives of the Eastern Partnership to the variability of forms of internal political development and vectors of foreign policy aspirations of the “focus states”: Armenia continues the process of structural reforms, primarily within the framework of visa dialogue, despite membership in the EAEU; Moldova is striving for rapprochement with the Eurasian integration project despite the Association Agreement with the EU; Georgia is very selective in the implementation of its obligations under the Association Agreement; Belarus is actively developing economic cooperation with the EU, without being a full member of the programme.
Today the gap in the Eastern Partnership programme between the level of political symbols and real practical content is more evident than ever. And although the crisis of the symbolic component is obvious, it has minimal impact on the sustainability of the practical level of the programme implementation. While the European Union is characterized by high bureaucracy inertia, it is important for pro-European political circles in the partner countries (whether they are in power or in opposition) to use participation in the programme to attract the attention of the electorate. Moreover, the partner countries included in the process of preparing the Association Agreement (all except Belarus and Azerbaijan) have carried out extensive work to adapt their domestic legislation to EU norms and standards.
The whole political discourse is built around the symbolic and strategic components of the documents to be signed. But they are, first of all, a specified set of technical details that will further determine the relationship between the EU, the “focus states” and Russia. This legislative platform could be used as an element of the common space from Lisbon to Vladivostok, but more than likely it will be the basis for further political and economic convergence between the EU and the Eastern Partnership states.