Not wanting to create a new Iron Curtain, the European Neighbourhood Policy aimed to create an area of stability, security and prosperity embedded in EU values. Then-European Commission President Romano Prodi had pointed to a ring of well governed countries and a community of values where fundamental freedoms and the rule of law are respected.
This was never going to be easy. All six countries face serious challenges ranging from weak governance and rule of law to pandemic corruption, unresolved conflicts and economic underdevelopment. The fact that a number of the countries remained entrenched to different degrees in a Soviet style of thinking has also been a considerable obstacle for their transformation. Throwing off this legacy has proven difficult and been exacerbated by meddling from Russia in an effort to keep these nations in its sphere of influence.
The EU has become more of a factor in all these countries. It has become the biggest trading partner of a number of the states including Azerbaijan, Ukraine and Georgia. The EU has taken on a more active role in the resolution of the four protracted conflicts in the region (Transnistria, Nagorno-Karabakh, South Ossetia and Abkhazia), while Moldova and Ukraine have joined the EU’s Energy Community.
Yet at the same time the EU has been unable to make progress in bringing about greater levels of democracy and adherence to EU values and in some cases some states have backtracked. This led to the introduction of the Eastern Partnership (EaP) in 2009. The EaP was enriched with the new instruments aimed at accelerating political association and economic integration between the EU and partner countries. Association Agreements and, for those countries that were members of the World Trade Organization (WTO), Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Areas (DCFTAs) were put on the table. The EU introduced its “more for more” or “less for less” approach, and it created a structure for comprehensive bilateral and multilateral cooperation that includes the involvement of the EaP states, the EU institutions and member states, as well as non-governmental actors including civil society and structures such as EURONEST and the Local Authorities and Business Forum.
Unfortunately, the EU is still waiting for a success story. Ukraine, which is the most important country in the EaP, has been the biggest disappointment. While Ukraine has finalized an Association Agreement and DCFTA, signing has been held up due to concerns regarding the rule of law, backsliding in democracy and selective justice. Belarus also represents a big failure, with the country stuck in authoritarianism. Paradoxically, while the EU has placed sanctions on the county -- because the oil and gas sector has not been included -- trade with the EU has increased.
More positively, Moldova and Georgia have made progress. However, in Moldova the reluctance of coalition partners to cooperate with the opposition, and sometimes with each other, on policymaking has compromised effective governance and reform. While Georgia’s leadership has been accused of centralizing power, this power has been used to push through reforms. Still the upcoming October 1 parliamentary elections will be a crucial test.
This is a disappointing outcome and seems to be a consequence of two things: The costs of reforms promoted by the EU in neighboring countries proved to be too high, while the incentives provided by the ENP were too weak. The EaP has also proven to be quite a weak instrument for transformation, as it relies on enlargement policy tools without offering a prospect of accession. Furthermore, while the EaP is built on conditionality, its incentives and financial support are often viewed as not being sufficient to compensate stakeholders for what they feel would be lost through reforms. For example, while the benefits of a DCTFA may be good in the long term, in the short term they represent an economic loss. Furthermore, where tangible benefits can be derived, for example, on the easing of visas, the EU has often been slow in delivering. Furthermore, the EU’s preoccupation with its internal agenda, the global economic crisis and the Arab Spring has impacted on its foreign policy outreach and thinking.
Moreover, the EU’s insipid approach also reflects divisions among member states over what the ultimate objective is for these countries. For countries such as the Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, their geostrategic choice is the EU, yet the EU has been unwilling to recognize this, let alone consider putting the much-longed-for membership perspective on the table. The EU needs a success story, yet this is going to require a “rethink.” More so because other players are strengthening their hands in the region bringing with them enticing projects: including Turkey, China and an increasingly assertive Russia with its Eurasian Union.