Vol. 2, No. 10 (May 15, 2009)

The European Union’s Eastern Partnership: Opportunities and challenges

Paul Goble
Publications Advisor
Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy

The Eastern Partnership between the European Union and six former Soviet republics – Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine – represents economic, political and cultural opportunities and challenges for the EU, the six countries who signed on to this accord in Prague on May 7th, and the Russian Federation. 

Because some of these appear to be diffuse and uncertain, many commentators are dismissing this latest EU initiative either as, in the words of the Wall Street Journal, “not worth the paper it is printed on,” or as a cover for arranging for a pipeline system that bypasses Russia.  But because both have the potential to produce radical changes in the countries of the region over time, others are viewing this latest eastward expansion of Europe as representing a far more serious challenge to the status quo than the inclusion of new members in NATO.
The former have the better argument if one considers this latest EU initiative in terms of the program’s immediate goals and the amount of resources the Europeans have committed to them.  But the latter have the better argument if one evaluates the Partnership in terms of its declared goals over a longer period of time. 

Initially proposed by Poland and Sweden, the Eastern Partnership has been modelled on the European Union’s Mediterranean Policy which has been in existence since 1995 to promote cooperation between Europe and the countries of North Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean.  Like that program, the new accord, which is only seven pages long, is more a statement of intentions than an action plan.  And what is perhaps more important is that it covers a highly variegated set of countries – three of the six signatories have indicated they hope to join the EU eventually while the other three have not – and calls not for a single policy toward all of them but rather individually crafted approaches with each, a reflection not only of their differences but also of differences within the EU on how to deal with them.

That has two consequences.  On the one hand, it makes this Partnership document extremely general, with calls to promote democracy, rule of law, respect for human rights and freedoms, and cooperation to expand free trade, the elimination of visas, and the resolution of conflicts less specific than many would like.  Azerbaijani commentators, for example, have already been critical of the document for failing to specify that all conflicts will be resolved on the basis of the territorial integrity of states, a call that might have made it more difficult to obtain the signatures of other countries and that could have been seen as a challenge to the Russian Federation given its policy in Georgia.

And on the other hand, it makes this Eastern Partnership a less serious and united activity than many in the region might like or that many in Europe and in Russia would oppose.  That conclusion is reinforced by the fact that the new organization will not have its own secretariat or budget but rather will be financed through the EU’s existing Common Neighborhood Policy.  And the amount of money allocated for the Partnership over the next few years will amount, according to European news reports but not the document itself, to only a billion Euros.

At the same time, however, there are three important reasons for thinking that this program, like the Common Neighborhood Policy which has played a larger role than many of its critics have thought, matters more than some may now think.
First, the partnership document was signed on a symbolically important day, the 64th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe, and represents yet another effort to overcome the division of Europe that occurred after that conflict by involving countries that were part of the Soviet Union itself in European institutions.

Second, at the same summit, the European Union signed a joint declaration with Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkey and Egypt about the NABUCCO gas pipeline project, one that if completed will allow gas from the Caspian Basin to reach the West bypassing Russia.  That has led some commentators to suggest that the Eastern Partnership is simply a cover for a broader effort to isolate Russia.  But regardless of whether they are right, it shows the ways in which this new accord may be used to involve these countries in more immediately serious economic and political activities even if they never become members of the EU.

And third, behind all the verbiage of the accord and commentaries about it is an important reality: the EU is seeking to create at least a penumbra of Europeanness around it, and these six countries – three in the former Soviet West and three in the Caucasus – are interested in becoming part of that culture or at least gaining access to it in order to balance the Eurasian influence of Moscow.  Such a culture shift, one difficult to quantify, may be the most important consequence of this partnership for all concerned.

All this can be seen by considering the economic, political, and cultural opportunities and challenges of the Eastern Partnership for the EU, the six former Soviet republics that have joined it, and the Russian Federation. 

For the EU, the Eastern Partnership represents an economic imperative, a political compromise, and a cultural opportunity.  Economically, the countries of the European Union need the oil and gas that come from or transit through these countries and would like to add these countries as markets for its own products.  Politically, the partnership represents a compromise between those, mostly the EU’s newest members, who would like to see the Union expand to the east, and those, mostly the original core states, who believe the EU cannot afford and should not try to take in any more members now.  And culturally, the Partnership plays to Europe’s strengths as a soft power, as an attractive option for many, even if it also highlights the EU’s difficulties in acting in a unified fashion as a strategic player.

For the six countries who have signed on to the Eastern Partnership, this accord represents an economic opportunity, a political necessity, and a cultural option.  Economically, these countries need help from Europe if they are to deal with an increasingly aggressive Russia, which is using its economic power to retake its political positions in what some in Moscow still refer to as “the near abroad.”  Politically and for the same reasons, these countries need any ties they can get with Europe either because they want to join Europe as Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia have indicated or because they want to have links with the EU as part of a balanced foreign policy as Azerbaijan does explicitly and the others do more implicitly.

And for the Russian Federation, the Eastern Partnership represents both challenges and opportunities in all three areas.  Ten days before the accord was signed, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told RIA Novosti that “we have heard an announcement from Brussels that this is not an attempt to create a new sphere of influence and that it is not a process which is directed against Russia.  We want to believe in this guarantee, but I won’t deny that some comments on the initiative made by the EU have concerned us.”
Lavrov’s remarks reflect the divisions in Moscow between those who see the Eastern Partnership as an immediate threat and those who see it as an opportunity.  Those who see it as a threat focus on NABUCCO when they are stressing economics, on Brzezinski’s observation that Russia without Belarus or Ukraine is “a typical regional Asiatic power” when they are talking politically, and on the loss of Moscow’s privileged cultural status in this region when they are talking about culture. 

But others in Moscow see this as an opportunity.  As the EU has approached Russia’s borders, Brussels has worked hard to present its actions as anything but anti-Russian, and many in Moscow, including Lavrov, have been extremely successful in getting the Europeans to take Russia’s views into consideration in ways that end by helping rather than hurting Moscow’s interests.  To be sure, the EU is perhaps less inclined to do that after Georgia and after the Ukrainian gas problems, but it is certain that Moscow has already prepared a list of desiderata that the EU will be inclined to grant to ensure that Russian opposition does not torpedo the Eastern Partnership.
All of that means that the Eastern Partnership, while not yet fully formed and certainly not the tight and fast-acting geopolitical policy some prefer, is likely to survive and prove both less and more than the establishment of a new European sphere of influence in the East, a sphere that will not be exclusive but will certainly be influential in the policies of the countries most directly involved as well as in those of the EU and the Russian Federation.