Saturday

24th Oct 2020

Opinion

Rethinking the Eastern Partnership

  • Ambassador Natalie Sabanadze: Last week's virtual summit was a useful affirmation of the importance of the Eastern Partnership - but it also revealed a lack of purpose about where the relationship is going (Photo: Mission of Georgia to the EU)

Last week's virtual summit between the EU27 and the Eastern partners was a useful affirmation of the importance of the partnership but it also revealed a lack of purpose about where the relationship is going.

Before the live summit due in early 2021 it is important to consider various policy options that might better reflect the interests of partners.

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One such option could be an EEA-style entity lining progress to integration into the single market that could have a powerful transformative influence on the most pro-EU partners such as Georgia.

18 June was supposed to be the date when the EU would hold its Eastern Partnership (EaP) summit.

However, Covid intervened and instead of a summit, heads of the EU-27 and six EaP countries (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine) got together in the virtual leaders conference.

It was a signal of political support and solidarity in times of crisis with the main outcome being the decision to hold the physical summit early next year and start preparing post-2020 set of deliverables that would set the agenda for the years to come.

Before drawing road maps, however, the EU needs to decide on the destination. The objectives should be set and technical criteria drawn to serve a particular political purpose.

Ten years have passed since the conception of Eastern Partnership and to its credit, many things have changed.

The EU is much more present in the region, with the three EaP countries having signed Association Agreements with DCFTAs and achieved visa free travel for its citizens.

The linkages, be they institutional, socio-economic or simply emotional are much stronger and political ties deeper.

The EU's assistance is having a real impact on the lives of people on the ground and in general, bilateral relations of each partner with the EU are at a more advanced state than ever before.

Nearer neighbours

Simply put, the EaP has considerably reduced the distance between the partners and the EU.

Distance, both as a metaphor and literally, a physical category has been shrinking thanks to various connectivity projects, people to people contacts as well as growing political, economic and bureaucratic links.

Georgia is a case in point, a country which was not even considered as a neighbour in the beginning of 2000s is today an associated partner with free trade and visa free travel.

It even hosts the first European school outside of the EU.

Despite positive changes, however, challenges persist.

A majority of the EaP countries are plagued by the security deficit and overall political stability in the region is not a given.

Wars are a reality, borders are contested and poverty and underdevelopment are facts on the ground.

Under the circumstances, the new vision of the EaP should shift from overcoming the distance to overcoming the difference; from creating linkages to building a common space where those inside and outside of the EU will become increasingly alike.

Once the overall objective is defined and we know what we are trying to achieve, we can start thinking about how to achieve it.

At the 18 June conference, gradual integration into single market for certain EaP countries has been floated as a possible next goal by some member states and partners, Georgia included.

Prior to this, Georgia has looked at the EEA for inspiration and found that while not fully replicable, it is an example that can be instructive for offering interested EaP countries something like an Association plus.

An objective which is to be translated into effective policy needs to satisfy at least two main criteria.

First of all it has to be in the mutual interest of all sides concerned and secondly, it has to have a measurable achievement indicator.

Creating an EEA type entity to the East does just that. It can be framed as the next step from association, acceding to which will be conditional and criteria based and progress evident and measurable.

It can be used as leverage by the EU and by the population of interested partners who will be able to keep their governments accountable for their achievements or failures.

A combined impact of the EU conditionality and local pressure from strongly pro-European public would considerably increase the EU's transformative impact on the ground.

It will also allow the EU not only to expand a common market but also create more sustainable stability and security on its borders.

The new Commission has announced the end of EU's geopolitical innocence, admitting that the exiting international system is competitive.

The commission has not yet clarified how it is going to play in this competition and try to win in. Structuring the neighbourhood to its geopolitical advantage could be a good place to start.

Author bio

Natalie Sabanadze is ambassador of Georgia to the EU.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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