CAUCASUS BLOG: Brexit leaves EU’s Eastern Partnership stuck in limbo

CAUCASUS BLOG: Brexit leaves EU’s Eastern Partnership stuck in limbo
After seven years the Eastern Partnership project has under-delivered on its promises and is in dire need of reform and more engagement from Brussels.
By Carmen Valache in Istanbul July 14, 2016

Unlike the British, the majority of Georgians love the EU, so much so that almost 90% of them want to join the bloc, according to a recent opinion poll. But EU membership for Georgia, which shares a border with Russia, has never been on the table. And now, in a post-Brexit EU, even possible concessions such as visa-free travel might be dropped for Tbilisi and its five peers in the Eastern Partnership.

A brainchild of the foreign ministers of Poland and Sweden, the Eastern Partnership was launched in Prague in 2009 with the noble goals of fostering stability, security and prosperity in six of the EU’s neighbours in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus – Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus – to “facilitate approximation to the European Union”. Part of the EU’s wider Neighbourhood Policy, the initiative aimed to democratise and boost growth in the bloc’s neighbourhood and to balance Russia’s influence in the region.

But after seven years the project has under-delivered on its promises and is in dire need of reform and more engagement from Brussels. Brexit might be the final nail in the initiative’s coffin, because the EU is set to be more concerned with its own survival rather than with keeping its neighbourhood in check. Protectionism rather than camaraderie will likely inform the EU’s policy towards the countries of the Eastern Partnership over the coming years.

A feeble partnership

Georgians were denied visa-free travel at the last minute in early June. The European Commission had deemed that the small Caucasian country of 3.7mn people had fulfilled all the security, migration, institutional and infrastructure requirements to qualify for the visa liberalisation scheme in a December report, promising to lift the requirement in early 2016.  But that did not happen, reportedly because Germany got cold feet over “Georgian crime”.

Tbilisi sent its parliamentary speaker, prime minister and president to Berlin in June, to convince Chancellor Angela Merkel and her administration to deliver on the EU’s promises. But while Georgian politicians seem to understand that you catch more flies with honey when dealing with the EU, unlike Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, their efforts seem to have fallen on deaf ears this time around.

The trouble is that an internally divided Brussels is failing to meet the standards and deadlines that it expects from its partner countries. While complaining about the slow pace of reforms in countries such as Ukraine and Moldova, the EU itself has missed deadlines for visa liberalisation for Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine and is backtracking on a promised association agreement with Ukraine.

Concerns over immigration after the refugee crisis have prompted EU member states to increasingly look inwards, and to question Brussels’ policies towards its immediate neighbourhood. Amidst fears that populist anti-immigration calls used by the Brexit campaign in the UK could reverberate in other member countries and bring about more referenda, the EU is likely to tone down even lukewarm initiatives such as the Eastern Partnership, as well as the pace of EU enlargement itself.

The programme never set out to grant outright EU membership to any of its member countries. Launched at a time when the bloc was already undergoing enlargement fatigue, it was seen more as an instrument to steer the six countries towards the EU and away from Russia.  

Nevertheless, the Eastern Partnership was modelled after the EU’s enlargement policy and requires reforms that are akin to those it asked accession countries to implement, Rafal Sadowski, senior researcher at the Warsaw-based Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW), explains to bne IntelliNews. Instead of membership, the reward is an association agreement with the bloc that comprises a “deep and comprehensive free trade area”.

“If it wants to stay relevant and be effective in its eastern neighbourhood, the EU should increase its financial assistance and political engagement with the member countries. The reforms it requires these countries to implement are costly, and we all know that they are developing countries with limited budgets,” Sadowski argues.

Besides, the language used at the Eastern Partnership’s summits seemed to point increasingly in the direction of membership. “The participants of the Warsaw summit acknowledge the European aspirations and the European choice of some partners and their commitment to build deep and sustainable democracy,” reads the statement released after the second biannual summit in Warsaw in 2011.

The following summit in Vilnius in 2013 “reaffirmed [the participants’] acknowledgement of the European aspirations and European choice of some partners”, and brought a pledge to “support those who seek an even closer relationship with the EU”. Such language resonated in some of the Eastern Partnership capitals, most strongly in Kyiv, Tbilisi and Chisinau, where hopeful governments and people scrambled to meet criteria for increased concessions from the EU.

By that point, it had become clear that the Eastern Partnership was a two-speed initiative, in which Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia were keen on membership and willing to undergo reforms in hopes of ultimately joining the bloc, while the remaining three members – Belarus, Azerbaijan and Armenia – were less interested in the prospect or in accepting EU interference in their domestic politics.  The divide became even clearer when Belarus and Armenia joined the Russia-led free trade bloc Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) in 2015.

The Eastern Partnership’s setup led to frictions early on. A circumspect Belarus even dropped out of it temporarily in 2011, citing “unprecedented discrimination” against its president, Alexander Lukashenko, who was not invited to the Warsaw summit.

Then in November 2013 came the Euromaidan protests, which were sparked by the failure of the now-ousted president Viktor Yanukovych to sign the association agreement with the EU, in favour of a controversial deal with Russia.

The Euromaidan protests were the Eastern Partnership’s first serious test, which it failed miserably. Not only did the EU – and Nato – fail to come to Kyiv’s defence against Russia or to support it in enhancing security in the east, but three years after the demonstrations, EU member countries have yet to ratify the association agreement. This time, it is the Dutch and not the Germans that changed their mind, voting to reject the deal in an April referendum.

What next?

Despite its shortcomings, the EU is unlikely to scrap the Eastern Partnership anytime soon, Sadowski believes, as that would deal a blow to the bloc’s foreign policy at a time when it needs to appear strong. Indeed, in response to fears over Brexit's effects on enlargement, the EU's chief diplomat Federica Mogherini reassured Western Balkan nations that the bloc was unwavering in its decision to continue with the process. "The message is loud and clear: we are going to continue. Brexit also does not change anything as far as the Eastern Partnership goes,” an EU spokesperson reassured bne IntelliNews in an email commentary. 

But therein perhaps lies the problem. For the Eastern Partnership needs to become more of a priority for the EU if it is to survive in the long-term, Sadowski says, and the focus needs to shift away from reforms to deepening trade and investment with these countries.

“The Eastern Partnership is the only policy instrument the EU has to engage with its eastern neighbourhood; there is no alternative to it therefore it has to survive. But unfortunately the political context does not allow for the reforms it needs to take place at the moment,” he concludes.

As for Georgians' and Ukrainians' ability to travel to Europe visa-free, they need to wait for Brussels' complicated decision-making process to run its course. For while the Commission ruled favourably in December, the decision now "lies in the hands of the Council and the European Parliament," the EU spokesperson added in its email to bne IntelliNews.

Georgia has received renewed promises from German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier that the visa liberalisation scheme will come through in the second half of September. Hopefully, third time’s lucky.