The very first summit of the Eastern Partnership (EaP) in Paris on May 7, 2009, showed that the new European foreign-policy initiative was not exactly a hit with large EU members. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was the only political heavyweight to attend the summit. This year’s summit was originally scheduled for May but then moved to the second half of the year, which suggests that the Eastern Partnership is clearly making slow progress. Against the backdrop of a prolonged crisis in the EU and revolutionary events in the Arab world, the EU is not paying much attention to its neighbors. If nothing really new happens by the time the summit is held, year 2011 promises to become a turning point for the entire direction of the EU's Eastern European foreign-policy and specifically for the EaP.
The Eastern Partnership received a mixed response in Ukraine two years ago. On the one hand, the initiative was geared toward developing the special post-Soviet component of the European Neighborhood Policy and promised to establish additional tools for further integration and closer cooperation between Kyiv and Brussels. On the other hand, it put Ukraine into an amorphous group of six post-Soviet states (Azerbaijan, Belarus, Armenia, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine), at least two of which were clearly authoritarian regimes. This alarmed Ukrainian diplomats who have long been waiting for a certain signal from Europe regarding EU membership for Ukraine.
By adopting this approach, the EU gave Ukraine the role of “one of the neighbors,” while the initiative itself began to look like a cover concealing an unwillingness to make any significant decisions with regard to Ukraine.
The events of 2010 further complicated the situation in Eastern Europe. The change of power in Ukraine led to more pronounced authoritarian trends in politics and society. The undemocratic presidential election in Belarus in late December 2010 and the ensuing repression of the opposition carried out by the Alexander Lukashenko regime put an end to a warming of Belarus-EU relations. European MPs even called for suspending or discontinuing Belarus’ membership in the Eastern Partnership. Relations between Azerbaijan and Armenia became strained again. Of the initiative’s participants, only Moldova and Georgia made progress.
On December 13, 2010, foreign ministers from EaP countries held a second meeting in Brussels with the participation of officials from the EU. The participants summed up the first results engendered by the initiative, in particular progress made in negotiations on association agreements for Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia and efforts to increase the mobility of citizens of partner countries through visa liberalization and readmission agreements with the EU. They also singled out cooperation among the NGOs of partner countries within the framework of the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum. It would be an exaggeration to say that these achievements caught the imagination of Brussels or any of the six Eastern European capitals where this initiative (which essentially creates an inefficient medley of widely different states) has simply been called inadequate on numerous occasions.
PROSPECTS AND DANGERS
However, back in 2009 Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski said that the EaP’s efficiency would become evident only in 2015–16 when the above agreements would start yielding their first results. Consequently, 2011 is important for the Eastern Partnership not only politically but also from the more down-to-earth, financial standpoint. The 2007–2013 budget will soon expire in the European Union, and this year Brussels is starting to work on the next seven-year EU budget for 2014–2020. So far the EaP has been financed from the European Neighborhood and Partnership Instrument Fund. The EaP’s budget for 2009–13 is €600 million of which €250 is allotted under the Europe Union Neighborhood Policy and €350 is earmarked for implementing the Eastern Partnership project.
The EaP leadership is trying to obtain better financing for the initiative, especially for participants that are negotiating an expanded free-trade zone with the EU (meaning Ukraine). However, the European Union has come to this point weakened by the global financial and economic crisis and the debilitating crisis in the Eurozone. Europeans are now counting their money much more carefully; so if the Eastern partnership does not live up to expectations this year, it may well see a smaller, rather than bigger, budget in the future. Another possible cause for trimming the budget may be signs of participating countries making inefficient use of Europe's money.
Should funding indeed drop, the entire initiative risks being marginalized. Its complete closure is unlikely, but the Eastern partnership may turn into an international forum that rises from the ashes only during high-level EU summits. The European Union will develop and expand bilateral relations with the countries that show they are prepared for cooperation and share its basic values: democracy, respect for human rights, free markets, and so on. Ironically, it is the small Moldova, rather than Ukraine, that best fits these simple criteria among the post-Soviet EaP participants. Neither can the Russian factor be ignored, as Moscow is trying behind the scenes to thwart the association agreement with Ukraine by pulling Kyiv closer to the east.
A POOR START
Presiding in the EU this year are Hungary and Poland, novices in this role. It would seem that this situation would be most favorable for the Eastern Partnership, but in February the quite unexpected news came that the EaP summit would be rescheduled. The official version has it that Hungary was afraid that the G20 summit in Deauville, which was set to be held at the same time, May 26–27, would lower the status of the Budapest summit. It should be noted that the world leaders were not in any hurry to attend the EaP’s inaugural summit in Prague. According to the weekly European Voice, the true cause of the shift was that Hungary, which is experiencing a deep economic crisis and has fired a large number of government officials, was simply unable to hold such a large-scale event on a high level.
Now, after the revolutionary explosion in many Arab countries, experts believe that the decision was indeed better: when the South is on fire, the European Union is too busy to deal with the East. In July, Poland will take over the EU presidency — together with Sweden, Poland initiated the Eastern Partnership and is not suffering the financial problems that are plaguing Budapest. Poland will essentially shoulder the main burden of keeping the initiative afloat: in addition to the summit, the Eastern Partnership Civic Society Forum is scheduled to be held in Poznan in October; foreign ministers will meet in Warsaw in December; heads of customs and statistical services will also get together this year; and ministerial meetings on education, culture, economy, visa issues and so on will be held.
However, the future of the Eastern partnership depends above all on the six participating post-Soviet countries. Ukraine has a special responsibility, because when the initiative was launched, Brussels expected Kyiv to lead the group. Ukrainian-European relations were supposed to become a model for others to follow, and Kyiv was to share its experience in European integration with the rest of post-Soviet republics. Whether Ukraine is up to the task will be made evident by the progress it can achieve with the association and on free-trade zone agreements (both are to be signed this year) and success in implementing the action plan to establish a visa-free regime with the EU. However, the Ukrainian government has yet to take any meaningful action that would meet these expectations. All of this makes it look like no one really needs the Eastern Partnership, making its prospects look quite dim.
According to the EU’s plans, the innovative component of the Eastern Partnership must include four platforms that will enable the six partner countries to share experience related to the following issues:
• democracy, good governance and stability;
• economic integration and adherence to EU norms;
• energy security;
• interpersonal contacts.