_ Gábor Stier, Foreign policy senior analyst at the Hungarian conservative daily Magyar Nemzet . Budapest, 24 November 2017. Published for debate.
On the one hand, a lot of nice words have been said, and on the other, unrealizable dreams persist. This is the mood of the Eastern Partnership summit. The European Union is cautious about the crisis in Ukraine, trying to make sure that Russia is not offended. In short, one cannot count on a breakthrough.
The European Union member-states and six countries of the Eastern Partnership – Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova, Belarus and Armenia – are meeting in Brussels for their fifth summit. The first and main task is to orient the Eastern Partnership towards fulfilling by 2020 the twenty key tasks designed to give new dynamism to the relations between Brussels and the eastern neighbours of the European Union. Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, which have association agreements with the EU, have been selected to form a special group and are promised some economic preferences as countries “demonstrating significant progress on the European path after fulfilling clear conditions.” Belarus, Azerbaijan and Armenia are singled out as a special subgroup, which “not only move at different speeds, but also have different aspirations for cooperation with the EU.”
At the plenary session in Strasbourg before the Brussels summit, the European Parliament adopted a statement that revived hopes for Ukraine and Georgia. The overwhelming majority of deputies welcomed the significant progress of these countries in a number of areas, which has occurred since the Riga Summit in 2015. It is stated that these countries demonstrate real results in the reform process and should be encouraged, for example, by joining the customs union or even included in the Schengen zone. The deputies took the initiative to create a financial fund within the EU to support those countries, which are successfully moving along the track of European integration and also pointed to the need to continue attempts to exert pressure on Moscow. Based on this political statement, which does not bear any legal obligations, one could almost talk about a historic breakthrough.
At the same time, the EU Ambassador to Ukraine has repeatedly said that now the European Union cannot offer membership to any of the partner countries. Essentially, Hugues Mingarelli reaffirmed the statement Angela Merkel made in Riga two years ago: Eastern Partnership is good, but the programme is not an instrument of the EU enlargement. This approach also demonstrates the insignificant amount of funds that Brussels allocates to its eastern neighbours compared, for example, to the Euro-Mediterranean partnership. In the EU, there is no common opinion on the neighbourhood policy: Paris, Madrid or Rome stand for one thing, while Warsaw, Bucharest and Stockholm are fighting for another. All of this is complemented by the fact that, at the suggestion of Hungary in the light of the new Ukrainian education law, the draft statement included a provision that partner states cannot restrict the rights of ethnic minorities.
In this connection, it can be argued that this institution, created in 2009 for lack of the best, on the initiative, above all, of Warsaw and Stockholm, to form an impression of a meaningful filling of the European neighbourhood policy, has exhausted its potential. Although from the perspective of Moscow it looks different, in fact the Eastern Partnership does not have enough funding or the required political will. Moreover, the influence of the most ardent advocates of the programme like Poland and Sweden has recently declined decisively within the EU. Therefore, two countries’ foreign ministers promoted the idea of the importance of activation of the European neighbourhood policy in vain – the effect of this kind of appeals appears to be minimal in the current situation. The larger important European countries, primarily Germany and France, have backpedalled. Despite their apparent reluctance to play along with Putin the fact remains: after a series of events in Ukraine they have become more cautious, seeing in the Eastern Partnership only opportunities for stabilizing the region.
In context of the initial intentions, it is precisely the weaknesses of the programme that cause the low efficiency of its modernization capabilities, and in the foreseeable future one should not expect that the European model will be implanted in the six “focus states.” Because of the lack of institutional conditions, the EU offers its eastern partners the status of periphery. In their turn, the Eastern partners, because of the well-known interests of retaining power, are in no hurry to accelerate the socio-economic transformations. Being in the stage of nation-building, they perceive the Eastern Partnership as a geopolitical project, whose essence, especially in the most successful “focus states” like Ukraine and Georgia, is unequivocally anti-Russian. This alignment creates a comfortable environment for the EU, which can easily “wash hands” in relation to deterrence of Russia. Successful implementation of the Eastern Partnership is undermined by the huge gap between the six “focus states” – both in terms of ambitions, and in relation to the existing realities.
Summarizing, we can say that the Eastern Partnership has experienced a significant setback, even though it was not very dynamic in the beginning. Still, it proceeds and everyone sees in the project what they want.