Panelists at the “Eastern Partnership and Its Prospects: What Can the EU Offer to the Eastern Neighbors?” conference, co-hosted by CEU’s Center for EU Enlargement Studies (CENS), the Latvian Embassy to Hungary and the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung Foundation Budapest, discussed how the EU's Eastern Partnership policy could be reformed in advance of the Riga Summit. The May 6 event was part of CEU’s Frontiers of Democracy series.
In his opening remarks CEU’s President and Rector John Shattuck mentioned the stabilization of Ukraine, finding a modus vivendi with Russia, and reopening some pathways to Eastern partners to build a meaningful relationship with EU member states as means of addressing the challenges of the relationship between the EU and EaP. Central Eastern Europe has a crucial role in facilitating this relationship, he added.
Ambassador of Latvia to Budapest Imants Liegis outlined the priorities of the current Latvian EU presidency, including an “engaged Europe,” and noted that the findings of the CEU conference will contribute greatly to the Riga Summit set for May 21-22. The summit will determine how to move ahead with the EaP/EU relationship.
Keynote speaker Andris Piebalgs, adviser to the Latvian President and former European commissioner said that, although the founding of the EaP didn’t create miracles, it did bring the EU closer to its eastern neighbors. He also emphasized the role of an active civil society as a strong driver of change. Zsolt Nemeth, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the Parliament of Hungary, urged the EU to revisit its Neighbourhood Policy to create a balance between the eastern and southern aspects of it. As for the EaP, he called for differentiation, conditionality, and a financial reshuffle or upgrade.
The first panel of experts from Moldovan, Georgian, and Ukrainian NGOs aimed at identifying the main challenges in the most engaged partner countries which have already signed their Association Agreements with the European Union. Victor Chirila, director of the Foreign Policy Association in Moldova, said that Moldova was considered a success story of the EaP in the past five years, but now it has reached a crossroads. The reforms are stalled, the country is undergoing a serious banking crisis, and Moldovan society is losing trust in pro-EU parties, the government, and governmental institutions. There’s no pro-EU voter base which might lead to a political crisis in the near future, he added.
Dmytro Shulga, director of the European Program Initiative at the International Renaissance Foundation in Ukraine, said Ukraine, with its gas storage infrastructure, “can be part of the solution” for energy security. Although Russia is undermining Ukraine via propaganda, economic destabilization and military aggression, the country is more unified now than a year ago, he said. Still, Ukraine has to establish new institutions, and reestablish the state.
Ivane Chkhikvadze, EU integration program manager at Open Society Georgia Foundation, mentioned the weak state institutions, external pressure from Russia, and the huge number of regulations to be implemented in a country that used to champion deregulation, as the main challenges in Georgia. From the EU, the country expects visa liberalization, demonstration of conditionality in action, tougher sanctions against Russia, and to be more present. If Georgia doesn’t get membership perspective from the EU, it will get it from the Eurasian Union, he added.
The second panel discussed whether and to what extent the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) is a rival to the Eastern Partnership. Lolita Cigane, chairperson of the European Affairs Committee in the Latvian Parliament, called the EEU a “stillborn child.” The nature of the member states and the way the EEU was formed prevent it from becoming a significant player, she explained.
James Nixey, head of the Russia and Eurasia Program at Chatham House, said Putin’s a brilliant strategist who uses Eurasianism as “ideological glue” to hold together a new geopolitical power. The EEU is legitimate, but makes no sense from an economical point of view. Although the EaP is not at all confrontational, Russia thinks otherwise. There’s no point in negotiating, for we have a very different set of values and principles, he added.
Andrei Yeliseyeu, research fellow at the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies in Vilnius, described the findings of a recent poll that shows the Belarusian public’s support for Russia and the EU is more or less equal. Belarus was reluctant to join the EEU, he said. The country faces more competition on the Russian market, and its newly gained access to oil revenues is less fruitful than expected. EEU membership raised many questions for Belarus, such as the principle of territorial sovereignty, and sustainability of the economic progress.
Richard Giragosian, director of the Regional Studies Center in Yerevan, said the EEU can’t rival any similar offerings of the EU. The EEU didn’t create a free market, offers little attraction, is based on the wrong set of rules, and members were coerced into joining, he explained. Armenia is intent on salvaging a relationship with the EU, but the EU needs to reward reformers in Armenia, he believes. It’s not only Turkey that Armenia needs to normalize its relationship with, but it also has to restore diplomatic relations between Yerevan and Budapest, he noted.
In the third panel, Julian Lindley-French, director of Europa Analytica in Rotterdam, urged for understanding the shifting nature of Europe, and managing the expectations of its eastern partners. “We have to be honest about our political constraints, and we can’t blame Putin for everything,” he warned. The EaP is a strategic part in the future of Europe, therefore the EU should sacrifice politics for strategy in our conflicting times, not the other way around, he suggested.
The EAP countries will need to be given something at the Riga Summit to keep them motivated, and to keep the idea of transformative power of the EU alive, suggested Amanda Paul, policy analyst at the European Policy Center in Brussels. The EU needs to differentiate by countries in the region, sort out its policy strategy with Azerbaijan, come up with an energy union strategy, and include Turkey – a major player in the South Caucasus region – in its neighbor of neighbor policy, she said.
Grzegorz Gromadzki, senior fellow at the Stefan Batory Foundation in Warsaw, called for a new EU approach towards Moldova, Ukraine, and Georgia, the best performing EaP countries. The EAP integration should be more policy and less technical oriented, he said, and added that sanctions should remain the EU’s main tool for containing Russia.
In his closing remarks, Director of CENS Peter Balazs described the major challenges of the upcoming Riga Summit. Most EaP member states have debated territories, thus any EU offer beyond the Association Agreement is impossible. The EU also has to recognize the mistakes it made; the EU is perceived differently in the east, and eastern countries are not homogenous. The Summit also has to find a way to deal with non-present players, such as Russia, Balazs suggested. “To create trade instead of diverting trade, the precondition is peace.”