21st May 2022


The EU Eastern Partnership summit - a rethink needed

  • 'The internal problems of the EaP countries and external threats posed to them by Russia will, if unchecked, lead to backsliding – if not worse' (Photo: Pixabay)
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Recently growing tensions in eastern Europe, such the Belarusian-Polish border and migration crisis or Russia's military build-up around Ukraine, are reminders of the incompleteness of the European unification project. But they are putting the EU's Eastern Partnership (EaP) programme at the centre of European politics.

On Wednesday (15 December), the EU will review this programme at the sixth EaP Summit with its official partners in eastern Europe, at Brussels.

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  • The first Eastern Partnership summit, back in 2009 (Photo:

The post-Soviet states Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Belarus are not merely neighbours, but a part of Europe. It was therefore apt for the EU to establish the EaP as a special programme for these six countries in 2009.

The EaP has since brought substantial outcomes for some of the six: pro-reform forces have been mobilised; EU financial assistance and market access have mitigated financial crises and hostile Russian trade embargoes; and Association Agreements with Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova (the 'Association Trio') have improved relations, trade flows, and people-to-people contacts.

Nevertheless, the overall picture in the EaP region looks grim.

Economic growth has been irregular, corruption unmasked but not undone, and reforms absent, weakly-implemented or even reversed.

Fatigue and loss of sense for the region's strategic importance has taken hold in Brussels, the EU member states and Washington.

Worse, the Kremlin uses all means at its disposal to reduce the sovereignty of the six EaP states.

Despite the tremendous challenges, there remains a fading vision of a Europe "whole, free and at peace". This once salient strategic project aims to create a unified and safe Europe built on democratic principles, the rule of law, and respect for human rights.

The plan implies the advancement of well-governed democratic societies, economic prosperity, and international security in Eastern Europe. Today, this vision needs to be remembered and rejuvenated.

Importantly, the alternative to such an all-European project is not the current status quo. The internal problems of the EaP countries and external threats posed to them by Russia will, if unchecked, lead to backsliding – if not worse.

Moscow's rival vision

Moscow's counter-vision is a very different security order based on the dominance of great powers as well as their privileged spheres of influence and implying that some states are less sovereign than others.

Contrary to Russian propaganda, the West is not in an adversarial geopolitical competition with Russia. The inclusive vision about a common, cooperative, and peaceful future for the entire European continent includes a future democratic Russia that adheres to international law and to the jointly agreed upon European security order.

To realise and revitalise the vision of a peaceful and united Europe, the EU needs to upgrade the EaP. More specifically, this entails:

Enhanced differentiation. The existing multilateral EaP framework already enables regional cooperation on such vital issues as security, connectivity, and climate change, and strengthens the EaP countries' collective clout and visibility vis-à-vis Brussels.

However, to tackle the daunting problems facing each EaP country, the EU needs to further differentiate and intensify its bilateral relations in the Eastern neighbourhood. Brussels should better address each country's unique circumstances through tailored policies, targeted incentives, and customised action plans.

Deepened integration. For the Association Trio Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, an enhanced differentiation would mean deeper integration into the EU in several areas, including more support for approximation of their legislation to the EU acquis, their intensified participation in the Union's single market (especially concerning energy and banking), and improved cooperation in areas such as transport, digitalisation, and security.

It also implies speedier inclusion in more and more internal EU programmes and agencies, a closer overall institutional relationship, and expanded high-level bilateral as well as multilateral meeting formats.

Expanded security cooperation. The EU needs to better ensure political stability, economic prosperity, and success of reform efforts in the EaP region, and more importantly, to remedy the continuously deteriorating security situation in both Western and Eastern Europe.

To do so it is imperative to increase the EU's security cooperation with the Association Trio. The EU's lacking engagement has impeded its influence and value as a serious geopolitical partner, hampered the success of the EaP, and encouraged other actors to move positions forward.

If the EU is to become a strategically autonomous geopolitical actor, if the EaP is to deliver true change, and if Europe is to be safe, the EU must start investing serious thoughts and means in the security of its Eastern neighbourhood.

Strengthened defence against hybrid threats. Crucial for the future security of both the EaP region and the EU is deepened cooperation on countering hybrid threats.

A new EU Hybrid Threats Toolbox should be implemented together with the Association Trio. The toolbox needs to cut across different parts of the EU and national structures as well as include measures such as upgraded strategic communication, heightened EU visibility at the citizen level, and boosted support to independent local media.

Reclaimed democratic engagement. In its increasingly opportunistic and transactional approach to the EaP, the EU has often turned a blind eye to slow, manipulated, absent or reversed reforms.

As a result, the EU's larger agenda is undermined, and Brussels is losing credibility.

While larger geopolitical ramifications cannot be ignored, the EU should not forsake its chief policy instrument – its normative power.

To ensure the sustainable implementation of reform, and uphold the empowering democratic vision, the EU should increase its focus on institution-building, systematic and "smart" conditionality, and a widened and diversified civil society engagement.

Author bio

Hugo von Essen and Andreas Umland are analysts at the Stockholm Centre for Eastern European Studies at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs. Their full report on a new vision for the Eastern Partnership is available here.


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

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