The Paradox of the EU Eastern Partnership

7 MINS READDec 14, 2010 | 13:09 GMT
Brussels hosted a foreign minister-level summit of the European Union's Eastern Partnership on Dec. 13. The program, designed to strengthen the union's ties to former Soviet states on its periphery — particularly Belarus, Ukraine and Moldova — was started by Sweden and Poland. It will need support from the European Union's powerhouses, particularly Germany, in order to fulfill its purpose effectively. However, support from those powers could change the nature of the program.
The European Union's Eastern Partnership (EP) held a foreign minister-level summit in Brussels on Dec. 13. Representatives from the 27 EU member states, the EU Commission, and the target countries of Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan attended. This summit follows a recent push by the two countries that initiated the EP — Poland and Sweden — to reinvigorate the program. The final communique issued at the summit stated that the EP's future would be a matter of "strategic debate" and that the program's importance would be emphasized ahead of the EP heads of state summit in Budapest in May 2011. The EP's purpose is to strengthen the European Union's ties to the former Soviet states on its periphery (particularly Belarus, Ukraine and Moldova), where Russia's influence has strengthened in recent years, via soft power. During their EU presidencies in 2011, Hungary and Poland intend to place EP high on their agendas. But there is a paradox to the EP. For it to fulfill its purpose effectively, it must transcend Sweden and Central Europe and receive support from EU heavyweights like France and especially Germany. However, given Paris and Berlin's warming relations with Moscow, this would make the EP a very different project from what Russia-skeptic Sweden and Poland want it to be. Resolving this incongruity will be the EP's key challenge in 2011.

The Eastern Partnership Thus Far

Since its inception in May 2009, the EP has been slow to get off the ground and has not met the expectations of those countries who were members at its debut. This is largely because Poland and Sweden were consumed with their domestic political situations throughout much of 2009 and 2010 and had little energy and attention to devote to the initiative. In the meantime, Russia — not the EU — has resurged in the target countries, as seen in Belarus' inclusion in a customs union with Russia and Kazakhstan and in pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovich's victory in Ukraine's presidential election. While the EP so far has had little measurable effect, it is important not to underestimate the purpose of the program. It is no secret that the European Union simply cannot compete with Russia's hard power in these countries. Russia's military is stationed in Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula and Moldova's breakaway republic of Transdniestria, while it cooperates extremely closely with Belarus and has the right to deploy its troops in the country under the guidelines of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, which is essentially Russia's present-day answer to NATO. Additionally, Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine have no desire or intention (excluding some of Moldova's staunchest pro-European factions) to integrate more closely to Europe militarily. However, issues like visa liberalization and economic aid are important to Belarus, Ukraine and Moldova, and these essentially are what the EP offers. Easing travel restrictions and boosting economic investment and aid — not to mention offering association agreements as precursors to potential EU membership — lays the groundwork for a larger EU presence in these countries. The European Union fundamentally operates under the assumption that making small bureaucratic and legislative decisions can snowball into a greater momentum. A coal-and-steel community evolved for 50 years until it became the European Union. Similarly, working on synchronizing Ukrainian and Moldovan laws with the bloc's may seem paltry compared to Russia's military presence in these countries, but in the long-term the EU hopes it will have a significant effect.

The Swedish-Polish Push

Over the past couple of months, there has been a renewed push for the EP, especially from Poland and Sweden, to emphasize the program's benefits. Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt and Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski recently visited Ukraine and Moldova to emphasize that the program will be of utmost importance in the near future. Also, Sikorski and German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle traveled to Belarus to meet with President Aleksandr Lukashenko and opposition leaders just ahead of the country's crucial presidential election scheduled for Dec. 19. Compared to the underwhelming launch of the EP, this recent flurry of visits has certainly caught Moscow's attention. For the EP to be effective as a tool to expand EU cooperation with the likes of Belarus, Ukraine and Moldova, and to loosen Russia's grip on these countries, the economic projects put forth by the EP need to be expanded considerably. When Hungary and Poland will hold the rotating EU presidency in 2011, there is a chance for this to occur. Both want to make expanding the program a top priority, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel has told Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk that Germany stands behind Poland's efforts.

Germany's Role

But this leads to another potential impediment for the EP. At its core, the EP is an EU initiative. For the EP to succeed in building ties to the target countries it must go beyond what Sweden and Poland have to offer; it must have the financial and economic resources of the European Union's larger members, such as Italy, France and especially Germany, to be truly effective. But along with German financing and business acumen comes the German political heft that has come to define the EU. And since Berlin-Moscow relations have been strengthening and Germany's view of Russia is fundamentally different from Poland and Sweden's, the EP would become less effective in its purpose of challenging Russia's influence in the target countries. Germany's role is therefore both necessary and problematic. From Germany's perspective, the EP is an irksome initiative that could provoke Russia, a valued partner. Germany has no intentions of allowing Ukraine, Moldova or Belarus into the EU any time soon (meaning roughly the next two decades). Berlin wants the EU to concentrate on internal reforms, rather than on enlargement. But at the same time, Germany sees the benefit in having an initiative such as the EP as a potential lever to use against Russia. German participation in the EP can therefore be a signal to Moscow both that Berlin has Russian interests in mind, but that Berlin could encourage bolder EP initiatives if Moscow does not have Berlin's interests in mind on other matters, such as the energy and economic cooperation that Berlin holds dear. From the perspective of Sweden and Poland, such participation would not really be welcome. A Germany that counts the EP as a tool to use in the overarching German-Russian relationship would serve Berlin's strategic interests, not Warsaw and Stockholm's. In essence, the EP has to grow beyond Poland and Sweden to be effective. The Polish government said as much when it announced that the EP would top the agenda of both the Visegrad Group and the Weimar Triangle. But as it becomes more of an EU-wide initiative, more capitals, particularly Berlin, will start deciding what happens with the EP, and the program would lose the focus that Poland and Sweden provide. This is why Merkel's offer of support to Poland is really a double-edged sword, and why the true test of the EP in 2011 will be the German-Russian relationship.

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