This blog is part of ENGAGE, a project that examines challenges to global governance and EU external action. A consortium of thirteen academic institutions and think tanks seeks to assess the EU’s ability to harness all its foreign policy tools and identify ways to strengthen the EU as a global actor.

***

Thomas de WaalSenior fellow at Carnegie Europe

Yes. No. In parts. The Eastern Partnership (EaP) project is a classic EU compromise between member states with highly divergent views on Russia and on the strategic importance of the six countries involved. Many EU member states, perhaps a majority, do not want to offer the only thing that would be truly transformative: a membership perspective.

Given those constraints, the EaP has delivered quite a lot for the three most pro-European countries of the six—Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine—in economic assistance, political support at crucial moments, and visa facilitation.

In line with standard EU practice, the approach tends to be overly technical—demanding convergence of standards so as to fulfil requirements for the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) EU leaders should work harder to give a clearer political message.

But the recent experience with Georgia is instructive. What could more clearly signal support than the personal intervention of European Council President Charles Michel in brokering a truce in Georgia’s domestic political dispute? Yet both main parties eventually refused to back the deal. The governing Georgian Dream party was so intent in keeping political control of the judiciary that it disavowed promises it had made to Michel and missed out on a large EU assistance package. Political commitment is a two-edged sword.

Liana FixProgram director for international affairs at the Körber-Stiftung

Certainly, the EU was committed to its Eastern partners in 2009, when the Eastern Partnership (EaP) initiative was inaugurated. The EaP was an ambitious project pushed forward by Poland and Sweden to transform the neighbors to the East into thriving reformed countries, with close political and economic ties to the EU.

Twelve years later, the situation has changed fundamentally. Russia has forced its way back into the neighborhood with the annexation of Crimea, the war in Donbas, and support for Alexander Lukashenko. Stabilization, no longer transformation, is the hope for the neighbors. Corruption, democratic backsliding, and a lack of reforms remain issues of concern.

At the same time, the EU is facing so many internal crises that the fate of Eastern Partnership countries is all but high on the agenda. And even with more attention, it is impossible to solve the key conundrum of the Eastern Partnership. Those countries that are committed to the partnership pursue the process in the hope of eventual EU membership. Patience is wearing thin, especially when it comes to the trio that has already signed association agreements with the EU: Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova. But for many EU member states, especially France, the Eastern Partnership is exactly the opposite: an instrument to stabilize the neighborhood, not to enlarge the EU, which has enough difficulties managing the Western Balkans process.

The summit on December 15 will not change anything about this basic contradiction. But at least it can give a helping hand and provide visibility to those reformers that are still trying to bring about change in their countries, such as in Moldova. A joint political declaration would be the minimum outcome.

Julia FriedrichResearch fellow at the Global Public Policy Institute, Berlin

Yes, it is. Claiming the opposite would overestimate the union’s overall engagement in foreign policy matters. Those who demand more overlook that the EU does what its foreign policy setup is designed to do. Greater political commitment requires unanimous member state support, which none of the Eastern partners currently have.

EU member states have shown unprecedented unity by imposing sanctions on Russia over Ukraine—perhaps the most committed foreign policy decision they ever made. Member states have also tasked EU institutions to use all technical instruments at their disposal: from financial support and training and monitoring missions to association agreements and visa freedom. This is both the extent and limit of EU commitment.

Some Eastern partners want the EU to use additional political tools to support their reform processes and shield them from Russia. This includes the offer of EU membership, which some suspect is withheld out of fear of violating Russian security interests. While Moscow is a factor, this negates structural economic and governance problems in Eastern Partnership countries and the EU’s internal disagreements. As a result, Brussels sticks to technical investments. Both the Eastern partners and the EU need to develop a more realistic outlook on their counterparts’ expectations—and limits.

Iulian GrozaExecutive director at the Institute for European Policies and Reforms (IPRE), Chișinau

After more than twelve years since the launch of the Eastern Partnership (EaP), the EU remains the main power of attraction and driver of normative transformation for the Eastern partners. The EU helped to modernize their economies, diversify trade flows, improve their energy security, and to strengthen civil societies and political pluralism throughout the region.

The union demonstrated continued commitment to deepening its relationship in particular with the three associated EaP countries. The EU’s Team Europe timely emergency response to the COVID-19 pandemic was instrumental in helping Eastern partners start vaccination programs. The new EaP Economic and Investment Plan will mobilize up to €2.3 billion ($2.6 billion) to further support the post-pandemic recovery and to transform the economies of the Eastern partners to make them more sustainable, resilient, and integrated.

However, the political and geopolitical situation in the EaP countries continues to be volatile and challenged by Russia, which requires more sustained and tailored EU support for strengthening the region’s security environment. Advancing beyond the political association and economic integration with the EU remains the key objective for Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine—the Association Trio.

Alena KudzkoDirector of the GLOBSEC Policy Institute think tank, Bratislava

Yes, but this commitment, even as it nominally remains stable, is subject to relative shifts in value. It has depreciated over the past decade against evolving geopolitical realities.

EU policy was designed to thrive in a stable international environment absent enticing alternative offers, be it from Russia or China. But now facing subversive foreign influence and even military action in the region, the EU must invest more than before to ensure its achievements are not easily reversible and to foster further progress.

When facing new challenges, like the weaponization of migrants at Belarus’s border with the bloc, the EU struggles to deliver a quick and effective response while member states, such as Germany and Poland, end up at odds with each other over solutions they impose.

The U.S. pivot to Asia underscores the need for the EU to venture more deeply but also into a wider range of security issues in the Eastern Partnership (EaP) region while at the same time reenergizing NATO’s ability to deter aggression, be it in Ukraine or Belarus.

Additionally, political commitment is only meaningful if it fares well against one’s rivals. Notwithstanding the EU’s preference for a cooperative approach, Russia continues to dictate that a zero-sum game can be played. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s political commitment to the region is considerably greater than that of the EU, with the Kremlin ready to pursue its perceived vital interests. For any EaP policy to succeed, it has to be buttressed with a coherent and unified Russia policy that puts limits on the Kremlin’s actions.

Bidzina LebanidzeSenior analyst at the Georgian Institute of Politics

The EU is certainly committed to its Eastern partners to some extent, but its strategy toward its Eastern neighborhood lacks both vision and substance.

The main problem is that the current formats of cooperation are outdated. It makes absolutely no sense to keep Ukraine, Belarus, and Azerbaijan in the same platform. The Eastern Partnership (EaP) should be differentiated further by breaking it up into several groupings. The idea of an Associated Trio should be embraced even if without an explicit membership promise in case that is a dealbreaker for the EU.

That does not mean that the Trio countries should get a free pass on certain issues. On the contrary, they should be held to higher democratic and good governance standards and be subject to more rigid conditionality.

Another issue is that if the EU really wants to strengthen its strategic autonomy or become more “geopolitical” it should also be ready to compete with systemic rivals, such as Russia, in all areas, including military. That does not mean engaging in direct conflict with Russia but, for instance, boosting Ukraine’s defensive infrastructure and providing defensive equipment. It would both enhance the EU’s commitment to its Eastern partners and strengthen its strategic autonomy.

Eldar MamedovPolitical advisor to the Socialists and Democrats Group in the European Parliament*

The EU is politically committed to the EaP countries, but only to an extent. The Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) agreements with Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova still offer a path of reform, mobility, and increased normative convergence with the EU for the countries concerned.

However, in the absence of the ultimate prize—an EU membership perspective—it is politically difficult to sustain the momentum and political capital governments need to implement the reforms. And a membership perspective is impossible to grant given the current political atmosphere in the EU, when even for the Western Balkan countries it is anything but certain, despite years of enlargement negotiations with some of them.

The EU has proved to be ineffective in conflict resolution in the Eastern Partnership countries. The EaP program was not designed to solve them to begin with, but that weakness was exploited by other, more hard-power-minded players, such as Russia and Turkey, to shape the geopolitical environment. The South Caucasus, after the Karabakh war between Azerbaijan and Armenia in 2020, is a case in point. The EU can play at best an auxiliary role there, but not determine political or security outcomes. This inevitably undermines its leverage.

Finally, the EU’s commitment to shared values with the EaP countries rings hollow when it isolates Alexander Lukashenko’s regime in Belarus, but welcomes Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan, whose regime is at least as repressive and authoritarian as Belarus’s.

* This answer reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the S&D Group and the European Parliament.

Stefan MeisterHead of the International Order and Democracy program at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP)

If we compare with other neighborhoods, the EU has developed one of its most comprehensive policies toward the East. Especially the Association Agreements and Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) agreements bring Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine very close to what members have agreed.

The Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement (CEPA) with Armenia is a comprehensive guide for reforms. Looking into the Joint Staff Working Document from July 2021 one can find a very detailed policy on the economic, green, and digital transformation, soft security risks as well as improving governance. There is strong support for the Belarusian opposition. Here the EU is committed.

When it comes to hard security, concrete steps in negotiating peace in the regional conflicts or offering a clear membership perspective, the EU either has no instruments or the member states have no political will to offer more.

The main challenge is the lack of a vision and leadership with regard to the Eastern neighborhood as well as Poland and Hungary undermining the EU’s norms while the Eastern neighbors are expected to commit to them. Together with the crisis of enlargement in the Western Balkans, this has a strong impact on the EU’s credibility in the Eastern neighborhood.

Emin MilliChairman of Restart Initiative

The question of whether the EU is politically committed to its Eastern partners can perhaps best be answered by looking at the relationship those countries aspire to have with the EU. While Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine seek EU membership, Azerbaijan and Belarus—the latter already having suspended its membership of the Eastern Partnership (EaP)—do not. Meanwhile, Armenia is a member of the Eurasian Economic Union.

Another indicator of the EU’s political commitment could be consistency across EU member states in pursuing EaP objectives in individual countries. Rather than adopting a unified approach toward each country, some EU member states have unilaterally taken positions toward EaP countries based on domestic rather than EU priorities.

Geopolitically motivated engagement by EU countries, especially with regard to Russia, has also led to instability throughout the EaP region. This is evident in the conflict between two member states, Armenia and Azerbaijan, where Moscow has agency and Brussels does not. To demonstrate its commitment toward Baku and Yerevan, the EU needs to offer concrete financial and diplomatic support in the postwar environment.

Facilitating a meeting between Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders at the EaP summit in Brussels is a positive step toward displaying EU political commitment to Eastern partners, but more must be done.

Gwendolyn SasseNonresident senior fellow at Carnegie Europe and Director of the Centre for East European and International Studies (ZOiS)

The EU is committed to the Eastern Partnership (EaP), but the level of commitment varies from one member state to another. In order to deepen the existing policy, the EaP would have to be recognized as an EU-wide priority and as a dynamic policy in need of more frequent adjustments in response to the developments in the individual Eastern Partnership countries.

In between summits, there is a tendency to see the Eastern Partnership as a fairly successful, uncontroversial, and automatically progressing policy.

The biggest sign of commitment would be making EU membership perspective an explicit part of the policy. The Eastern Partnership summit is unlikely to generate agreement on this. It could, however, demonstrate the political will to introduce greater policy flexibility. This would allow the EU to react to the non-linear reform process in the countries that have progressed furthest on aligning with EU norms and regulations—Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine—but go through periods of internal polarization, democratic backsliding, or the prioritization of security issues over domestic reforms.

The EU also needs to face up to the fact that the implementation of the Deep and Comprehensive Trade Area (DCFTA) agreements can have unintended consequences, for example by strengthening local or national-level oligarchs concentrated in sectors and company structures benefiting from the opportunities the agreements present. It will be primarily at this operational level where EU commitment will be put to a test in the years to come.

Stanislav SecrieruSenior analyst at the European Union Institute for Security Studies, Paris

From the practical point of view, the EU has demonstrated on numerous occasions its commitment to the Eastern Partnership states. It disbursed macro-financial assistance to offset the effects of the global economic turmoil. It deployed monitoring missions or resorted to sanctions to ensure—albeit not always perfect—ceasefires in conflict areas. It released funds for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), opened its market further to compensate for negative effects of Russia’s economic warfare, and supplied vaccines to contain the COVID-19 pandemic.

All this helped eastern neighbors, especially those who seek much closer relations with the EU, to rebound from multiple crises. And all this directly or indirectly served the EU’s security interests too.

Still, the increasingly volatile security environment and ever-growing demands for reforms in the Eastern neighborhood call for more—not less—EU in the years to come.

In practical terms, the EU could enhance cooperation in the security field with the three associated members of the EaP in order to strengthen their resilience to multifaceted warfare.

The EU could also raise its profile and act as a mediating power to stabilize the situation along the Armenian-Azerbaijani border and contribute to reopening of the transport routes between the two countries. The bloc could adopt a more hands-on approach to reforms of the judiciary and the fight against corruption in the region. And the EU could invest much more to protect and empower actors of change, who in bottom-up mode work daily to transform EaP societies. Finally, the union could provide new opportunities for sectoral integration of the associated partners in the European market. All this combined would amount to updating and upgrading the commitment on the part of the EU toward its Eastern neighbors.

Monika SusVisiting Fellow at the Robert Schuman Center for Advanced Studies at the European University Institute, Florence

The EU’s commitment to its Eastern neighbors is burdened by the failure to adapt to the increasingly differentiated political development of these countries, which recently has accelerated.

The Belarusian operation—with a “little” help from the Russian friends—on the Polish border shows, that the EU must revise the Eastern Partnership policy.

It is time to start adapting the instruments at the EU’s disposal aimed at the Eastern neighbors to the degree of their commitment to democracy, human rights, and other European values. Pooling resources will allow the EU to channel funds to pro-European countries, and considering the economic repercussions of the pandemic, these resources will be urgently needed. It is also time for the EU to put its money where its mouth is and counter the regime in Minsk with an adequate political reaction.

The continuation of the business as usual policy when it comes to the Eastern neighbors undermines the EU as a geopolitical player. Therefore, the bloc should use the upcoming Eastern Partnership summit to announce a revision of its policy in light of the ongoing wars in Eastern Ukraine and events on the Polish-Belarusian border. In this way, the union could renew its political commitment to the region.

Zsuzsanna SzelényiRichard von Weizsäcker Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy

The EU’s commitment to providing a €2.3 billion ($2.6 billion) Economic and Investment Plan in grants for its Eastern neighbors is a promising step toward stimulating economic growth and prosperity in the region. Money, however, represents only one element of how the EU deals with these partner countries.

Until recently, the EU was lacking a clear interest in the region, except for Sweden, Poland, and the Baltic states, for whom the Eastern neighborhood traditionally constituted a buffer zone between them and Russia and whose democratization they supported.

In the last ten years, the EU developed a flexible approach to dealing with the countries of the region, each of which have very different democratic profiles and diverse ambitions when it comes to the EU.

Yet, the EU has always been cautious with the EaP since Russia has indicated its reservations about how the EU interferes in its sphere of interest.

Since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the radicalization of the situation in Belarus, the region’s problems have turned into serious security issues. They require a much more straightforward and bold policy from the EU, which recognizes the EaP countries in their own right and recognizes Russia as a security threat and not just an economic partner. Understanding the region’s more complex realities is a must if the EU wants to become more capable of supporting stability in its neighborhood.

Benjamin TallisPractice Fellow at the Hertie School’s Centre for International Security

Not as strongly as it could—and should—be.

The Eastern Partnership has been a hesitant, half-hearted embrace of the EU’s Eastern neighbors—and a wasted opportunity. Bright spots such as visa liberalization for Ukraine and Moldova are outweighed by a general approach, in fields from trade to labour mobility and border security, that has been transparently self-serving and betrayed the original “ring of friends” ethos of the European Neighbourhood Policy.

That policy started out as a creative balance of values and mutual interests (friends with benefits?) with a genuinely open and integrative approach—although membership remained a long shot. Quickly, however, narrowly defined security concerns became dominant and the EU increasingly saw the Eastern neighborhood as both a troubled area and one proving ground for its (futile) ambitions as a traditional security actor.

This entrenched the idea that the Eastern partners are both different from and potentially dangerous to the EU. A fearful logic of self-interested, protective security thus replaced the more progressive, hopeful, and mutually beneficial approach. Many of the EU’s Eastern partners still want a great deal “more Europe” but the EU’s changed perspective prevents it from genuinely committing to them, to everyone’s detriment but the Kremlin’s.

Olga TokariukKiev-based journalist specializing in international politics

When it comes to the EU’s relations with its Eastern partners, there are two speeds both within the EU as well as within the Eastern partnership countries themselves.

Central European, Scandinavian, and Baltic states argue that stronger ties and a membership perspective for the Eastern neighbors are vital. Others, such as the Mediterranean states and some EU heavyweights, do not see the Eastern flank as a priority. These divisions result in an ambiguous EU policy toward the Eastern partners.

The Eastern Partnership countries are split into two blocs as well: the Associated Trio—Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia—have much higher EU integration ambitions than the other three countries, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Belarus. Differences between these groups grow with each passing year, and the viability of the Eastern partnership in its present format is increasingly questioned.

Thanks to association and free trade agreements with the EU, Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia have noticeably deepened their integration with the bloc. However, there is a lot of frustration in these countries over the lack of a clear EU membership perspective and political integration. If this issue is not addressed, there is a risk that the EU’s appeal to them may fade over time.

Andriy TyushkaSenior research fellow at the European Neighbourhood Policy Chair at the College of Europe in Natolin

The EU has demonstrated a consistent, though variable, commitment to the Eastern Partnership (EaP)—its foreign policy framework for its Eastern neighbors. The EU’s political commitment to its Eastern partners, however, has never been truly validated.

Nonetheless, the evidence of the EU’s financial commitment to the Eastern partners is compelling—whether it’s through financial instruments deployed in the region (the European Neighbourhood Instrument (ENI) and, later, the Neighbourhood, Development and International Cooperation Instrument (NDICI)), the EU’s more recent COVID-19 EaP solidarity package, the envisaged EaP Economic and Investment Plan, or the recently earmarked assistance to Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine under the European Peace Facility.

The EU’s rhetorical commitment is no less impressive, especially when it comes to reiterating the programmatic policy goals or the accompanying policy mantras of “more for more,” “joint ownership,” and “differentiation,” among others.

Yet, the EU’s institutional and (geo)political commitment to Eastern partners is the least trenchant. The EU’s engagement with its Eastern partners intermittently manifests reluctance—that is, ambivalent attitude, hesitant engagement, and selective commitment. Still, the EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell stated in 2020 that “the Eastern Partnership is at the heart of EU foreign policy.”

One should add, however, that the EaP itself is a half-hearted foreign policy undertaking, as it is fraught with ambiguity and only partially meets the Eastern partners’ needs and expectations, including their own pursued goals such as the strengthening of national and regional security as well as the longed-for—by some—EU membership perspective.

The EU’s Eastern Partnership has brought tangible benefits to its member countries but does not reflect today’s geopolitical realities. The approaching summit is a chance to tailor the initiative to partners’ diverging needs.