Vol. 4, No. 4 (February 15, 2010)

The EU’s Eastern Partnership and regional politics

David Cadier, PhD candidate, Sciences Po (Paris)
Florent Parmentier, Dr., Director, Energy Program, Sciences Po (Paris)

On December 13, 2010, the second Eastern Partnership Foreign Ministers Meeting was held in Brussels, making this a useful time to evaluate the European Union’s latest initiative towards its Eastern neighborhood.  Reviewing a report submitted by the Commission on the implementation of this program, the Foreign Ministers of the 27 EU Member States and the 6 partner countries (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine) discussed both what has been achieved and what they hope to achieve to enhance “political association and economic integration” throughout the region (European Commission 2010). 

After gathering steam at the time of its inception—not least because of its denunciation by Russia—the Eastern Partnership (EaP) initiative has since been receiving less attention in EU foreign policy debates, but this year could mark a turning point because of favorable developments both within the EU—the Hungarian and Polish presidencies of the EU—and regionally—EU-Russia rapprochement, but fleshing out what remains for now a rather limited program will ultimately depend on a more cohesive vision within the EU and a more consistent involvement from the partner countries.  In other words, it will rest on the capacity of the various actors involved to converge—or at least not to disagree—on what to put behind this project.     

The EU’s role as an actor in international relations depends on an interplay between internal political factors and the perceptions and expectations of outsiders (Bretherton & Vogler 1999).  More than for its actual content, which fails to innovate much beyond traditional neighborhood policy tools, the EaP is interesting because of the meanings various stakeholders attach to it.  Their understanding of, and reactions to, this initiative thus are an indication of their broader strategies for and visions of the region. 

Consistent with the broader European Neighborhood Policy, the European Commission designed the EaP as a platform to foster peace and stability in its periphery.  Despite that, however, the EaP is sometimes accused of lacking ambition, as it streamlines rather than radically transforms existing policies; but before discussing its reception, the three geopolitical priorities it serves—the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreements (DCFTA), energy and migration—ought to be emphasized.

Simply put, by means of the EaP, the EU aims at integrating neighbour countries within the European geo-economic space and thus fostering economic growth in the region.  Such integration requires a legislative harmonization based on the ‘acquis communautaire,’ in other words the adoption of a large number of rules, which the EaP is meant to facilitate.  While neighbours are expected to benefit in the long run, such a process can also be costly and difficult for the economies involved.  For instance, post-Soviet countries are experiencing great difficulties in moving away from former agricultural standards (the 'GOST') toward more demanding European standards.  The common implementation of DCFTAs may lead, in the medium term, to a “neighbourhood economic community.”   

Energy security is also high on the European agenda, particularly since the mid 2000s and the recurrent Russo-Ukrainian gas disputes.  The 2009 gas crisis in particular had dire repercussions in several Member States, Bulgaria and Slovakia being the most affected.  Energy security is mainly conceived in the EaP through the “Southern Corridor,” an approach, which purports at diversifying sources and routes.  The Nabucco project, in competition with the Russo-Italian South Stream project, aims at carrying 31 bcm annually, directly from Central Asia and the Caucasus (mainly Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan) toward Europe, bypassing Russia. 

Finally, the migration issue is crucial although in different ways for the EU member States as well as for the partner countries.  The EU emphasizes fighting the organized crime networks controlling and exploiting migration flows.  The partner countries, for their part, oppose to security another overarching principle, that of freedom of movement, thus stressing visa liberalization. 

In addition to its specific content, the EaP is important symbolically as the first EU external policy conceived and promoted by the (formerly) ‘new’ Member States.  Poland has been calling for an Eastern dimension in EU’s foreign policy since it joined; and in 2008, it teamed up with Sweden to submit the concept paper, which laid the foundation for the EaP.  The Czech Republic, which was extremely interested in finding a flagship policy for its EU Council Presidency (2009), had been working along similar lines.  Slovakia and Hungary, as well as the Baltic countries to some extent, have joined in supporting the initiative in its early stage, thus making it a Central European project. 

The Central European countries (also known as the Visegrad Countries) managed to seize upon favorable conditions—that is, the launch of EU’s equivalent program for the Mediterranean and the Georgian crisis of August 2008—to advance an institutional framework for EU’s policy toward its Eastern periphery and thus tip the Union’s geopolitical spotlight toward their own area of interest.  The EaP stands out as a region of strategic importance for the Visegrad Countries, whether in terms of geography (all but the Czech Republic have a common border with it), historical legacies (minorities in Ukraine and Belarus), economics (migration of labor forces) or energy considerations (high dependence on regional transit routes).  Accordingly, they have a strong interest in promoting political and economic reforms in the region.  But the development of the EaP was also serving intra-EU objectives, namely the endeavor to create a niche for Central European Member States and thereby increase their agenda-setting capacity. 

The expectations of the Neighbourhood countries regarding the EaP differ not only from that of EU Member States but also among themselves.  They do not share the same situations, resources or weaknesses.  The EU neighbours seem to face a trade-off between (destabilizing) political pluralism and (more stable) recentralization of powers—at least in the short run.  Brussels, however, wants a neighbourhood that is both democratic and stable.  It supported the democratic movements in Ukraine (2004) and Moldova (2009) but remains ill-at-ease with political instability.  Nevertheless, these events heightened EU’s attention toward these two countries.  And both demonstrated their interest in cooperating more closely with Brussels: EUBAM—the EU operation monitoring the Ukrainian-Transdniestrian border since 2006—is a case in point.  Similarly, the governmental coalition in Moldova (‘Alliance for European Integration’) has been consistently endeavouring to secure support among Brussels’ circles while Ukraine, even after Yanukovych’s return to power, seems to favor carrying forward a DCFTA with the EU over joining the Russia-Belarus-Kazakhstan customs union.

The EU leverage is more limited in other countries, as in Belarus where recent presidential elections were marked by irregularities and the repression of the opposition.  President Lukashenka has been sending mixed signals to the EU, often giving the impression to attempt to play off Brussels and Moscow against one other to maximize its benefits.  Georgia and Armenia are currently in very difficult and uncertain positions.  The enthusiasm that followed the 2003 “Rose Revolution” in the former now seems to be fading, especially in the aftermath of the war of August 2008.  Thanks to its gas resources, Azerbaijan has an increasing geo-economical weight, as far as energy politics is concerned.  Baku is eager to further develop relations with the EU but is unhappy with what it perceives as a lack of European will to diversify gas supply. 

Overall, the neighbourhood countries received the EaP with minimal enthusiasm, notably deploring its limited financial support.  More important, they have been disappointed with the EU neighbourhood policy because they, in contrast to the EU, view it as a means of counterbalancing Russia instead of a process of domestic implementation of European standards. 

Paradoxically, the greatest public attention to the EaP came from a country that refused to take part in it; during its first month, Russian policy-makers were among those referring most often to the initiative.  Moscow openly criticized the EaP as a divisive policy pushing the countries of the region to “choose” between the EU and Russia (Economist 2010).  Russia’s strong reaction was not only surprising in light of the limited content of the policy but also quite significant as, for the first time, an EU policy was condemned in terms usually reserved to NATO.  Moscow’s reaction appears to have stemmed from a growing realization on the part of Russian policy-makers of EU’s transformative power (i.e. normative influence, potentially fueling “colored revolutions”), thus leading them to see the EaP as a platform intended to reduce Russia’s influence in the region, or at least as a direct competitor to its own integration efforts. 

Moscow’s reaction, however, was also related to the post-Georgian crisis context, which was marked by additional contentious issues such as the Ballistic Missile Defense system or the question of NATO’s enlargement.  Witness the fact that in today’s more conductive diplomatic configuration (internationally, with the US-Russia reset as well as regionally, with the Polish-Russia rapprochement), Moscow has notably toned down its rhetoric on the EaP.  Moreover, it could also be that the Kremlin, after reviewing the content of the program and the reactions of the countries concerned, realized that the EaP actually lacks the substance to meaningfully jeopardize its own influence in the region, solidly resting on its ability to offer concrete incentives in terms of energy and visa. 


Bretherton, Charlotte & John Vogler (1999) The European Union as a Global Actor (London: Routledge). 

Economist, The (2010) “Europe's  Bear  Problem”, The Economist, 25 February.

European Commission (2010) “Implementation of the Eastern Partnership”, Report to the meeting of Foreign Affairs Ministers, European Commission, Meeting doc. 335/10, 3 December, available at: http://eeas.europa.eu/eastern.