By Radu Magdin and Adelina Jelescu
The Eastern Partnership countries matter: they are a key battleground for hearts and minds situated between the EU and Russia. It’s a tough neighbourhood, albeit an aspirational one. So this week’s EaP summit is no easy geopolitical task for Brussels in finding the right tune for people both in the EU states and those next door.
The six countries included in this cooperation framework are tackling domestic and foreign challenges and this summit is about adapting the Eastern Partnership for the future. The ultimate carrot, particularly for Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia would be the promise of an EU membership card but it’s not the only incentive Brussels can use to keep their attention.
In the end, everyone has to do a reasonable expectations management exercise with their home audience: the Easterners have to tell their citizens the flame of integration is alive, the Westerners have promise they won’t be opening the floodgates. So, defining success is a win win between “give me hope” (so that I continue or accelerate reforms) and “give me peace” (since I have EU internal/ national issues as well on my mind). The European Parliament is strongly behind engagement in the region, supported technically as much as possible by the Commission and very likely toned down partly in the Council. In particular, Parliament has pushed the concept of an EaP+, opening the door to a customs union, energy union, digital union or even the Schengen area and abolishing mobile roaming tariffs. As we, EU28 Europeans know well, roaming is key and will have instant positive effects: it’s practical, tangible and difficult to refute.
Moreover, MEPs also recommend setting up a trust fund for Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova, which could focus on private and public investments in social and economic infrastructure, as well as maintaining collective pressure on Russia to resolve the conflicts in Eastern Ukraine, the occupied territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and Transnistria. The key to such engagements is to address concerns that the impact of money poured into development is being undermined by propaganda and even misinformation campaigns from Russia. As 2018 and 2019 will be key electoral years in Moldova and Ukraine, any signal of further support would help restore the EU brand in these respective countries. Like China is filling the power gap in Asia under the Trump administration, so Russia will advance if the EU retreats in Europe.
Unlike the countries that entered the EU in 2004, today’s pre-accession states, countries like Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia have much smaller incentives to take difficult decisions – in terms of current funds as well as future promises. This leads to slower reforms and fewer results which are seized upon by pro-Russian political parties to deepen divisions.
Serious strategic thinking should be done in Brussels for 2025/2030 and rethinking the EaP so that it does not transform itself in an aid-based “gate-keeping” exercise. In the end, the best sign of a project’s vitality is its enlargement, not its retreat, the latter signalling strategic decay. So defining success in Brussels this summit is also a key hope-management operation. We need to ensure a more pragmatic continuation of the tone set by the previous Eastern Partnership Summit in Riga.
If we do not set a successful narrative ourselves, Russia’s “malign influence” will do that for the EU. In the past few years, Russia’s foreign policy seems to have moved from a more accommodating position towards EU to the idea of “competing regionalisms,” also stressing to former Soviet republics the incompatibility between EU membership and adherence to the Eurasian Economic Union.
The West again faces competition (a Eurasian alternative), and should be willing and preparing to fight to win: the EaP summit is just a first step.
Radu Magdin and Adelina Jelescu are Romanian strategy consultants. They write in their private capacity as regional analysts.
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