3rd Dec 2023


Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova vs EU's Eastern Partnership?

  • Russia's invasion of Ukraine has expedited discussion of a new format for relations with Ukraine, but also for Moldova and Georgia (Photo: Wikimedia)
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The EU's Eastern Partnership has been a key instrument in promoting democratic development across the region and in supporting democratically-minded actors within authoritarian states.

Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia's democratic track record is not perfect, but granting them EU candidate status would further support their journey towards stable democracy, strong rule of law and a functioning market economy.

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  • Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia's democratic track record is not perfect, but granting them EU candidate status would further support their journey towards stable democracy, strong rule of law and a functioning market economy (Photo: Wikimedia)

While doing so, the unity of the Eastern Partnership should be preserved to avoid fragmenting the EU's Eastern Neighbourhood. Experts and officials should also be careful about rhetoric turning decisions on candidate status into a 'now-or-never' scenario.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has expedited discussion of a new format for relations with Ukraine, but also for Moldova and Georgia.

The need for enhanced cooperation was already acknowledged during the last EaP Summit in December 2021 and pressure is mounting to grant all three countries EU candidate status.

The decision has to be taken by the European Council and will be based on the European Commission's assessment of their suitability for membership in accordance with the Copenhagen criteria, but also with respect to political considerations.

Several aspects will have to be weighed up before the decision is made, from gauging political momentum both in the EU and in the specific country, to fairly assessing the trio's democratic track record, to keeping in mind the overall Eastern Partnership policy coherence, all while managing the expectations of the population.

The EU institutions' final decision on granting Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia EU candidate status is inherently political, but should not be too far removed from the situation on the ground.

So far, the Eastern Partnership policy — with its dedicated financial, administrative and technical support — has effectively guided their democratic progress.

According to the results of the Eastern Partnership Index 2020-21 — a monitoring tool produced by the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum — the trio has already cemented considerable normative and legal approximation to the EU.

Analysing democratic developments in the EaP countries since 2015, the results of the Eastern Partnership Index demonstrate steady improvement in Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia towards the standards set out by the Copenhagen criteria — a functioning market economy, stable democracy, strong rule of law, and the capacity to implement all EU legislation.

This is not to say that things are perfect: progress has not always been linear, and inertia and backsliding are also apparent.

Legislative frameworks are often in place, but gaps persist between the law and the implementation of norms. All three countries continue to struggle with the fight against corruption, and the independence of the judiciary in both Georgia and Ukraine have worsened.

However, while these difficulties should not be underestimated, neither should it be forgotten that becoming an EU candidate country is just the beginning of the accession process.

The democratic progress achieved so far by Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia is a testament to the far-reaching effects of the Eastern Partnership Policy framework and their Association Agreements and Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreements with the EU, and a preview into the democratic development potential of a continuing complementary regional path under the EU candidate status framework.

At the same time, granting EU candidate status to the AA trio should go hand-in-hand with maintaining a strong, regional Eastern Partnership framework.

While the principles of differentiation and conditionality helped secure progress for Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, the EU should be wary of further fragmenting relations with and within its Eastern Neighbourhood.

The Eastern Partnership policy — particularly in its multilateral dimension — has functioned as a framework to address priorities that are key for all six countries, such as democracy, human rights, rule of law and structural reforms. Coherence in the EaP region will be essential to address common challenges that the region faces, and will continue to face, such as corruption, the rule of law, connectivity and climate change.

Azerbaijan and Belarus

For Azerbaijan and Belarus, the EaP multilateral track has been the only possible platform for dialogue. The results of the EaP Index show that Belarus and Azerbaijan — countries without the structured framework provided by AA and DCFTA — remained at the bottom of the ranking.

Both countries scored lower in 2020-21 than in previous editions of the Index, suggesting that the gap between the associated and the non-associated countries became palpably wider.

Maintaining a strong regional framework while acting on Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia's applications for EU candidate status would recognise that the Eastern Partnership has delivered substantial results, sending a message to stakeholders in Armenia and to democratic Azerbaijani and Belarusian actors about the opportunity that exists for their countries.

Equally, as discussions on the granting of EU candidate status continue, European stakeholders, the Ukrainian, Moldovan and Georgian governments, and the expert community should refrain from framing the granting of EU candidate status with "now or never" rhetoric.

The EU will continue to support democratic development in Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia regardless of whether they hold EU candidate country status or not and this should be clearly communicated, with expectations carefully managed.

Conveying an impression of abandonment if the candidate status is not granted, while European values are being defended on the frontline in Ukraine, is a risk that democratic Europe should not take.

Author bio

Ana Furtuna is director of the secretariat of the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum.


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

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