The 4th Eastern Partnership (EaP) summit, which took place on 21 and 22 May in Riga, Latvia, did not significantly contribute to any major political decision which was on the agenda. The European Commission and Ukraine signed a memorandum of understanding and a loan agreement for 1.8 billion Euros in the third EU Macro-Financial Assistance (MFA) programme. But neither Georgia, nor Ukraine, have been granted visa free-regimes with the EU – one of their key priorities. The expectation within the two EaP governments had been high, especially after the EU liberalised travel with another EaP country, Moldova, in April 2014. Instead, the final adopted by the heads of the governments stated that the EU welcomed the progress made by the countries in their implementation of the Visa Liberalization Action Plans (VLAPs). The summit reconfirmed the importance of the EaP policy, showed the commitment to the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the partner countries, stressed the importance of implementation of the Association Agreements (AAs) and the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreements (DCFTAs), and welcomed steps taken to further advance bilateral relations with the eastern states. Clearly, compared to the previous EaP summit in Vilnius, 2013, which marked a decisive moment in the relations between the EU and the EaP countries, Riga had much less to offer.
Rather, the summit outcomes show the caution that exists in the EU with regards to the EaP policy. The EU framework for the six post-soviet countries (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine) had been created in 2009 in the wake of the Russian-Georgian war. The first EaP declaration stated that the policy intended “to create necessary conditions to accelerate political association and further economic integration between the European Union and interested partner countries… through clear political message about the need to maintain and bolster the course towards reforms” (). Russia, which remained beyond the framework, saw the EaP as a geopolitical battlefield with the West, which peaked in 2013. By then, four out of the six EaP countries, Armenia, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, had been proposed to sign the AA (including DCFTA), “the most powerful transformative instrument after enlargement”. This agreement is incompatible with the Eurasian Union (now: Eurasian Customs Union), initiated by the Russian Federation. By signing the agreement with the EU, the post-communist states would automatically be eliminated from the possibility of the membership of the Russian-led Union. Therefore, the Kremlin started a powerful political and economic blackmail, which later resulted in Armenia orientating its pro-EU plans towards Eurasia. Officially, Moscow also managed to influence the former President of Ukraine – at the Vilnius summit, Victor Yanukovych announced that Ukraine would not sign the AA with the EU. But his decision sparked mass protests in Kiev, and despite Russian military intervention, eventually pro-western forces came to power. The new realities in the eastern neighbourhood, and mainly the Russian factor, put the EU governments in a cautionary mood about the future of the Eastern Partnership policy.
The EaP is part of the broader European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP), which together with the 6 eastern countries unites 10 other states in the EU’s southern neighbourhood. With the new developments and security challenges caused by Russia in the east and the spread of extremist movements in the south, the EU Member States have already taken a decision to review and upgrade the overall neighbourhood policy. The review process has already started and the consultation phase is expected to be completed by June 2015. In this regards, the Commission’s consultation “Towards a new Neighbourhood Policy” is better suited to examine the EU’s new approach to the neighbourhood. In order to see a bigger picture and search for some contours of the future EaP, it is more important to observe the review process of the ENP, rather than the outcomes of the Riga summit.
The Commission’s consultation paper poses key questions and challenges that are to be addressed by the upgraded ENP. In the text, we can already notice some changes, new terms – and remained ignorance. The consultation paper underlines four priority areas: differentiation; focus; flexibility; ownership & visibility. Obviously, it’s notable that the Commission emphasizes the importance of the scope of the cooperation, flexibility of the toolbox and the importance of raising awareness of the ENP publically. However, the bigger change in these priorities is still the principle of differentiation. A case–by–case approach would benefit the EaP. The six countries, which are currently under one policy framework, despite having common backgrounds differ in their internal and external challenges. They face individual problems and the roots of those problems vary; furthermore, since 2013 there is a clear benchmark between the three countries – Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine – which signed the AA/DCFTA and are keen on reformation, and the other three – Armenia, Azerbaijan and Belarus – willing to promote cooperation, rather than deepen integration with the EU. The principle of differentiation will promote to deeper understanding of local problems in individual EaP countries and enable the European policy-makers to propose more adopted solutions. Though, this would lead to a growing need for a consistent overall strategy for the whole eastern neighbourhood.
The biggest novelty, however, is the notion of the “neighbours of the neighbours”. The Commission paper states that “many of the challenges that need to be tackled by the EU and its neighbours together, cannot be adequately addressed without taking into account, or in some cases co-operating with the neighbours of the neighbours” (European Commission, 2015). This particular term addresses the Russian factor. Russia claimed that the EaP policy cannot exist without Russian interests being taken into consideration. In contrast, the EU always argued that the relations between the EU and the sovereign neighbours could not be influenced by third parties. After Russian military manoeuvres in the region, there is less doubt that the new neighbourhood policy should recognise the Russian factor. However, if the new format puts Russia into any kind of official framework, or gives substantial powers to influence the relations between the EU and the EaP countries, the Europeanisation process would be seriously hampered in the EU’s eastern border.
The Ukrainian events showed that the popular thesis of “buffer zones” between the EU and Russia, which existed in European debates, is false. Striving for Europeanisation and democratisation in the EaP countries has cost human lives. Destabilisation and military conflicts in the neighbourhood have come at a high cost for the EU as well. There is a need of EU’s recognition and commitment to the EaP countries’ aspirations for the EU integration. In this regards, the consultation paper completely ignores the notion of “EU membership” and does not touch upon the issue, not even as a question for reflection. While the AA/DCFTA are quite important rewards for the EaP states, the EU membership perspective remains key to their Europeanisation and stands as a major precondition for the popular internal support of the pro-western governments. The EU has still to recognise the need for enabling the strongest EU incentive for the EaP states.
While the Commission’s consultation paper gives some food for thought on the future of the European Neighbourhood Policy, including the EaP, more importantly the review opens up an opportunity to bring new ideas to the European policy-makers. The actual outcome will mainly depend on how the EU policy-makers, EaP states, experts, other stakeholders and, of course, discussions in the EU capitals determine the process.