European Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule is currently on a tour of states on Europe's eastern periphery, meeting with leaders from Moldova, Armenia and Georgia this week. These visits represent an intensification of the competition between the European Union and Russia over the strategic borderland states ahead of an upcoming Eastern Partnership summit in November. While the European Union has made progress with some countries, significant obstacles towards any serious integration remain, chiefly Russia and the European Union's own weakness and divisions.
The most important country in the Eastern Partnership — and the most advanced in its negotiations with the European Union — is Ukraine. Ukraine has for years been in talks with the European Union on signing an association and free trade agreement with the bloc, an important stepping-stone towards further integration with the European Union. While Ukraine was touted to sign these agreements in a previous Eastern Partnership summit in Poland in 2011, it was only able to initial the pacts, primarily due to EU opposition to the jailing of former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko. The domestic political situation still serves as a major impediment to Ukraine's integration with the bloc, and the upcoming summit will show whether the Yanukovich government has recalculated its position or whether it will still want to keep a safe distance from the European Union.
Another country that has received much attention is Moldova. Moldova has faced much political instability recently, with the government collapsing in March due to a corruption scandal and divisions within the ruling coalition. However, a new government was formed at the end of May, with former Foreign Minister Iurie Leanca appointed as the prime minister. Leanca has said that Moldova's priority is to be on a pro-European course, and that the country hopes to initial the association and free trade agreements with the European Union at the Vilnius summit in November. But the new government remains fractious and fragile, and further political instability could compromise Moldova's progress towards EU integration.
Georgia is another country that has been a key focus under the Eastern Partnership program. The country under President Mikhail Saakashvili has had a strong orientation towards the West, with membership in the European Union as well as NATO serving as key goals under his administration. However, the emergence of Bidzina Ivanishvili as prime minister last year has undermined Saakashvili's political position in the country at the expense of Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream movement. Ivanishvili has worked to strengthen Georgia's ties to Russia, though his government remains nominally committed to EU and NATO membership.
The other three countries that are targeted by the Eastern Partnership have much stronger complications for the European Union. Belarus has almost completely distanced itself from the European Union and has strengthened economic and security ties with Russia. Azerbaijan has long been an independent player wary of any foreign alliances, and is currently more interested in developing its energy industry. Armenia, while it has made some progress towards initialing agreements with the European Union, remains overwhelmingly dependent on its security guarantor, Russia.
While Russia is a common factor in serving as a roadblock to European integration of all the Eastern Partnership states, further complications come from within the European Union itself. Not all EU countries support the Eastern Partnership initiative equally — Germany and France, for example, are much more cautious about integrating these states into the European Union than, say, Poland or Lithuania. Therefore, the European Union's relationship with its eastern periphery continues to face challenges both inside and outside the bloc.