Jeroen Bult: The Eastern Partnership: Paralysed by a lack of EU clarity

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Back in late November 2013, in the white, pompous Palace of the Grand Dukes in Vilnius, Ukrainian President Yanukovitch refused to sign the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement, after Vladimir Putin had ordered him to do so. The matter overshadowed the entire Eastern Partnership Summit that should have become the crowning achievement of the Lithuanian EU Presidency.

However, the Lithuanians must have experienced the revolution that broke out on Maidan Square in Kyiv soon afterwards, resulting in Yanukovitch fleeing the country, as an unexpected, yet positive «bonus». If we leave aside the occupation of the Crimea by Russia and the dramatic war in Eastern Ukraine, the determination of Ukraine’s new leadership to focus on the West – in March and June 2014, in two steps, it signed the Association Agreement – could be interpreted as a kind of belated success for the Lithuanian Presidency indeed.

Will the Eastern Partnership Summit that took place in Brussels on 24 November, this time under Estonian chairmanship, entail similar political changes (and revolutions) in the East? This is highly doubtful. Estonia itself, like Lithuania, has never concealed its preference for a fast and solid integration of Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova into the euro-atlantic structures, in order to help them «escape» from the, what President Lennart Meri once called, halli tsooni («grey zone») between the West and Russia. A zone in which the three Baltic republics, until 2004, had to operate themselves.

The other three Eastern Partners, Belarus, Azerbaijan and Armenia, are more complicated cases. Belarus and Azerbaijan have transformed themselves into professional dictatorships, while Armenia, land-locked and trying to survive in a geopolitically-unfriendly environment (amidst arch-foes Azerbaijan and Turkey and islamic greatpower Iran), is probably the most susceptible to Russian influence. Still, most Estonian policy makers agree that they need a «helping hand» as well. Back in 2008, Kristiina Ojuland, the Vice-President of the Riigikogu and former Foreign Minister, stated that «the road of Azerbaijan is leading to the EU», while later that year, after Russia’s undeclared war against Georgia, former Prime Minister Mart Laar noted that Georgian and Ukrainian EU membership «is a serious possibility» and that Azerbaijan and Armenia «have also emerged on the European horizon».

Even Ojuland and Laar will have to admit now that this was merely wishful thinking, but Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova – the latter two signed their Association Agreements with the EU in June 2014 and, like Ukraine, have been granted visa-free travelling arrangements – have definitively been able to intensify relations the EU. This dichotomy also underlines that then Foreign Minister Urmas Paet was right, when he, shortly after the Vilnius Summit, advocated a more individualistic approach of the six Eastern Partners. Each country has its own political, strategic, economic and cultural-historical predicaments; with the exception of the Russia/Soviet «link», Moldova and Azerbaijan have less in common than, say, Denmark and Portugal.

The basic problem, however, is that the perception of the Eastern Partnership in the western half of the EU is, grosso modo, a totally different one. It is probably no coincidence that French President Macron and Dutch Prime Minister Rutte did not show up at the recent Partnership Summit in Brussels. French policy makers already tried to play down Ukrainian expectations about a future EU membership after the outbreak of the «Orange Revolution» in 2004 and President Sarkozy was the main absentee at the Summit of Prague in May 2009, where the Eastern Partnership was formally launched. Dutch voters rejected the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement in a referendum in April 2016, much to the amazement of Baltic politicians – «I cannot imagine that the Dutch do not understand, how important free trade is for a country like Ukraine. The Agreement contains no references to EU accession at all. Politicians should be sincere and should not lie», an angered President Grybauskaitė said to the author of this article.

Some politicians and («Nee»-) campaigners certainly behaved like short-sighted Kremlin puppets, but the nitty-gritty was, and is, a general lack of interest in, affinity with and knowledge of remote eastern countries like Ukraine. In Western Europe, these are in fact being seen as «Europe’s barbaric backyard», a phrase that Marju Lauristin once used in an illuminating article (Lauristin applied it to the perception of the «new» EU member states – which exposes an additional problem: all countries east of Germany, Austria and Italy are being thrown into the same pot, the pot of «backwardness»).

The synthesis of this mindset and more common prejudices against and cliches about the terra incognita in the ex-Soviet East («cheap labour forces», «criminality» etc.) is an obnoxious concoction. Unfortunately, the countries themselves, in spite of the moderate political, economic and legal progress they have made, have spared no efforts to confirm such prejudices and cliches: corruption, the undermining of anti-corruption officers, pressure on the media and homophobia are no good publicity indeed. Much to the delight of the populist forces in Western Europe, who will keep a close eye on centre politicians making no «further concessions» to the six eastern republics.

But it is highly unlikely they will do so anyway. Giving a more tangible shape to the Eastern Partnership (including prospects of EU accession) would not only mean a boost for the populist parties and movements, it would also aggravate tensions with Russia. Especially Germany and its omnipresent legion of Putin-Versteher do not want to take this risk. Although the awareness of the necessity of stability in the Partnership countries has evidently grown after 2014, mass immigration from failed and impoverished states in the Middle East and Africa is being perceived as security threat number one (on 29-30 November, both Macron and Rutte attended the EU-Africa Summit in Abidjan). Even the Western Balkans has gradually been given more priority by the EU; recurring instability in Bosnia-Hercegovina, Macedonia, Kosovo and Albania might offer Russia, China, Turkey and/or islamic fundamentalists carte blanche and impede attempts to close down the Balkans migration route for good. 

Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania deserve praise for their endeavors to promote liberal democracy and to bolster civil society in the former Soviet republics that have not been so fortunate to break out of the halli tsooni. Yet, the success of the Eastern Partnership depends on a sincere devotion of the EU as a whole that exceeds the level of vague diplomatic statements – «By giving diffuse signals, the member states are contributing to a lack of clarity themselves», as the Neue Zürcher Zeitung put it.    

«As has been the case with the enlargement policy, the EU demands from its partners the implementation of reforms, without offering them a clear perspective though».

But the more clarity the participating partners will get, the more «old» EU members like France, Germany and the Netherlands will put on the brakes. The latter even worked out a «explanatory declaration» regarding the Association Agreement with Ukraine, which was accepted by the European Council in December 2016 («The Agreement does not confer on Ukraine the status of a candidate country for accession to the Union, nor does it constitute a commitment to confer such status to Ukraine in the future»). Dutch Parliament and Senate would ratify the Agreement soon afterwards, much to the annoyance of the former «No»-campaigners (one group founded a new, anti-EU and pro-Moscow party that won two seats in Parliament during the elections in March and has gained ground in opinion polls ever since: Forum voor Democratie). Meanwhile, the political situation in Ukraine, the most important Eastern Partnership country, remains most volatile.

Vladimir Putin has no reason to be dissatisfied.

Jeroen Bult is a Dutch historian and publicist, specialized in the Baltic States and Germany.