The Eastern partnership policy, a cornerstone of the European Union in terms of developing relationships with Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, will soon celebrate its first decade of operation. From its inception, it has been based both on values (strengthening democracy at the side of the EU) and pragmatic interests (strategic stability, development of economic relations).
Linas Kojala
© DELFI / Kiril Čachovskij

The EU regularly notes that the Eastern partnership was not designed as a tool in order to exert greater influence in the region, a position taken by the Kremlin, who view the policy as an expansion of Western influence into the zone of Russia's "special interests." Despite attempts to slow down the process, results show that integration with the EU is both a strategic goal and has clear practical benefits for the six partners.

Yet, not all of the EU's neighbours are in pursuit of the same goals. During these past nine years of the Eastern Partnership, cooperation has taken place at two different paces. Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova have advanced further, for instance in signing Association and Comprehensive Free Trade Area agreements with the EU. At the same time, the participation of Azerbaijan and Belarus in the Eastern Partnership policy has narrowed, with these countries not seeking to ratify Association Agreements, and only pursuing limited cooperation initiatives. Armenia is somewhere in the middle. It has taken steps to integrate itself more fully with the EU, such as its 2017 ratification of a stronger, more comprehensive partnership with the EU. Yet, at the same time, Armenia has maintained its membership in the Eurasian Economic Union, an organization initiated by Russia

On the eve of the 10th anniversary of the Eastern partnership

In each of these countries, both external factors (continuous Russian interference in the internal policies by various "soft" and "hard" measures) and internal factors (corruption, lack of competence of national authorities) hamper closer cooperation with the EU. Nevertheless, a number of concrete results have been achieved in the past decade. For example, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine have achieved visa-free travel for their citizens to the EU – holders of biometric passports can stay in EU countries for a period of 90 days within a 180-day period. This agreement is actively used: as of 2014, more than 1 million Moldovan citizens have travelled to the EU. In Georgia, where visa regime was liberalised in 2017, a total of 253 thousand people a year have visited; in Ukraine, nearly 10 million border crossings have been recorded over the past year and a half.

However, these Association Agreements do not just concern privileges. All three of the Eastern Partnership countries have committed themselves to implementing the reforms related to the EU acquis communautaire and to ensuring significant progress is made in the economic, legal and political spheres. In other words, in exchange for the EU's removal of tariffs and other trade barriers, these countries are transposing to EU standards -- by some estimates, up to 80% of EU legal norms will be integrated.

Such a large degree of convergence with the EU acquis, as well as the implementation of domestic reforms will not be an easy process. There will be considerable costs, especially with regards to the transition to EU quality standards and other non-tariff barriers -- some of the most stringent in the world. This requires not only political will – governments and parliaments must be disposed and able to decide on and implement reforms, – but also the funding to make these investments. Moreover, it will require the willingness of the public to adapt to more complex regulations, in the hope that higher standards will pay off in the future.

So far, enthusiasm remains high. Of course, the EU has contributed to this enthusiasm, providing solid support to the reforming countries. Between 2014-2017, approximately 400 million euros were allocated to Georgia alone; to Moldova – 310 million; to Ukraine – 12.8 billion euro. In total, support should amount to around 16 billion euros by 2020. It is important to note that the so-called "more for more" principle applies when discussing this support. By contributing more at the domestic level, countries thus secure both greater attention and funding for reforms from the EU. In addition to this support, there is also bilateral assistance from EU member countries. For example, Poland has loaned tens of millions of euros to Ukraine in order to develop border infrastructure that is both stronger and under more favorable terms.

In the long run, the greatest benefit for these countries will come from an increase in their exports. According to 2016 figures, roughly one third of Georgian and Ukrainian exports already go to the EU; in Moldova this figure increases to over half. These figures are expected to keep increasing. Since 2016, the volume of trade from each of the Eastern Partnership countries has been seen to go up - from 6% with Georgia to 24% with Ukraine.

An additional advantage of greater integration with the EU is that trade liberalization will take place asymmetrically; namely, the EU will eliminate and reduce its tariffs faster, allowing partners a longer period for adaptation. For example, Ukraine had to initially liberalize only about 50% of its industrial exports, and presently, volumes are projected to reach 96 percent. Therefore, because of the relatively small markets of the associated countries (in particular, Georgia and Moldova), the direct economic impacts on the EU will not be significant. On the other hand, significant economic benefits can be expected to be made in the other direction, and may manifest in the further development of energy security and the opening of wider roads to EU-Asia market connections.

EU membership still seems a distant prospect

The residents of Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine recently, more than ever before, have started appreciating the benefits of convergence with Western organizations. This has led to an increase of support for membership and closer integration with the EU. For example, in 2018, 46% of Moldovans and 76% of Ukrainians expressed their willingness for integration in the EU, rather than the Eurasian Union proposed by Russia, and 60% of Georgia's citizens would support EU membership. The President of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, even claimed boldly that without Ukraine, the EU will never be a fully completed project, as one of the borders for a modern European civilization lies along the border of north-eastern Ukraine.

Nevertheless, it is difficult to expect that the doors to the EU will remain open, unconditionally, for at least one of the perspective states, in the near future. Such a position is facilitated by the fact that the EU Treaty formally leaves the possibility of acceding open to any European state that meets its political, economic, and social requirements. Moreover, while it is not yet confirmed officially, the Eastern Partnership Summit, traditionally visited by EU heads of states every two years, will not even take place in 2019. This is due to European Parliament elections to be held in 2019; therefore, attention will be concentrated on other matters. Instead, a high-level congress will be held in which the European countries will be represented by foreign ministers.

One of the proponents of the Eastern Partnership policy, former Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs Radek Sikorski, notes this fading appetite for development. Such a concern was a priority during his service, where he hoped to overcome "fatigue of enlargement" and create conditions that would allow for the acceptance of new members. However, German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently reassured that the Eastern Partnership policy should not be seen as an instrument for preparing and accepting new EU members. Therefore, according to her, partners should not create expectations that cannot be realized in the future. The head of the European Commission, Jean Claude Juncker was of similar opinion by noting that the countries of the Eastern Partnership were not yet ready to accede to the EU, and that offering the prospect of membership is not appropriate. Therefore, the declaration of the recent EU Summit on Eastern Partnership points out abstractly that there is a need for as close cooperation as possible with all countries but does not mention a possibility of future membership.

Such an attitude, while prevalent in Germany, France, the Netherlands and other Western nations, has not been traditionally supported by the Baltic states or Poland. In their view, offering prospective membership to Partnership countries is appropriate in that it will accelerate the process of implementing reforms. In other words, if the partners are promised "the light at the end of the tunnel" – likelihood of EU membership – the chances of them choosing to make more comprehensive and lasting changes will be much higher.

This position is based on both academic research and Lithuanian experience. Prior to the enlargement of the EU in 2004, covering as many as ten countries, Lithuania had also implemented almost analogous requirements of the Association Agreement. Like the countries of the Eastern partnership, it was complicated to do this – European standards were much higher than the prevalent Soviet-era relics. However, the main driver that did not allow the process to stop was the clear commitment of the EU to take Lithuania into their club in the event of their successful integration of reforms and standards. Many politicians in Lithuania have pointed out that traditional political battles and party disagreements stopped when it was necessary to consider legislation related to the EU. Because there was a national consensus regarding Lithuania's aspiration to join the EU, even political opponents were able to agree on the necessary reforms.

Nevertheless, the Baltic States also understand that currently there is not enough political willpower that will allow for a breakthrough. Yet, this does not mean everything related to the process has to stop. On the contrary, the aim should be to promote pragmatic cooperation and embolden the reform process, which in the long run will change the assessment of potential membership. Moreover, Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova will need to send a clear signal of their desire to work more closely together and to prove that they can be success stories. For example, the parliamentary assembly for these three countries was initiated in 2018. The parliaments' signatories to the agreement have emphasized that such collaboration will contribute to strengthening sovereignty, restoring territorial integrity and deepening integration into Western organizations. It becomes an incentive for the EU itself to bear in mind that there must be more incentives on its part in order to promote the reform processes within these countries, even without the prospect of enlargement.

In many ways, the futures of Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia lie in their own hands. It depends on the willingness of these countries to implement vital reforms to fight corruption, strengthen justice, ensure the supremacy of the rule of law, improve governance, and public administration of state institutions. However, they are not alone; besides financial support, both the EU and Lithuania help contribute through other means, both direct and indirect.

Lithuania's contribution to the Eastern partnership policy

Thus, the future of the Eastern Partnership will be determined by specific, diverse initiatives to foster the gradual approach of partner countries towards European standards. This was also discussed at the Summit in 2017, whereupon 20 actions were agreed to be implemented by 2020.

Some of the goals have already been achieved or are currently being successfully implemented. For example, Ukraine, Armenia, Moldova and Georgia have introduced electronic income declaration systems and have made significant progress in the de-politisation of their civil service systems. Huge investment has been allocated to develop 5.5 thousand kilometres of roads and railways in the region within a couple of years, while cooperation between Azerbaijan and Georgia regarding the Southern Gas Corridor project contributes to strengthening the energy security of both of these countries.

Importantly, great attention has been paid to civil society. The European School of Eastern Partnership, which started its activities in Tbilisi, was established recently. In addition, since 2014, 30 thousand young people from within Partnership countries have benefited from the Erasmus+ programme, which provides student exchanges and volunteering initiatives. In addition, consensus has been reached that a roaming pricing agreement can be expected by 2020, which would significantly reduce the communication costs. Finally, over 200 young ambassadors from Europe have been brought together in order to discuss the merits of implementing European ideas, and have since disseminated such ideas back within their home regions.

Lithuania's role in building the EU's policy towards its eastern neighbours has also been very significant. This is not only due to our proximity with Partnership countries; our country has already successfully integrated into the EU, and so it can share experiences with partners who want to travel the same way. These points translate into practical action. One key contribution has been Lithuania's participation in 35 EU Twinning projects aimed at promoting cooperation between similar public institutions in the EU and Eastern Partnership countries, transferring experience of EU Member State reforms to beneficiary countries, as well as bolstering support for infrastructure and state institutional reform.

Such specific initiatives may not necessarily look revolutionary, but they yield tangible results. For example, in Georgia, several ministries and experts of Lithuania have been working with their local colleagues for more than a year and a half to create a Forest Code that would allow for more transparent and precise regulation of forest management, felling, as well as the creation of competitive conditions for biomass sales. To achieve this goal, the best practices of Lithuania and other EU countries have been used. Today, such a code has been drafted and is awaiting the Georgian Parliament to adopt the relevant legislation. Local officials and entrepreneurs are already satisfied that this will help to address long-standing problems concerning this issue.

Lithuania also successfully cooperated with Poland and Germany to help develop an integrated border management system. This required a detailed analysis over the legislation currently implemented in Ukraine and the preparation of amendments, as well as the introduction of anti-corruption measures. This project is considered one of the success stories which will help stimulate further cooperation between the institutions of Lithuania and Ukraine.

Lithuania also assists its partners at the legal level. For example, since 2014, Lithuanian and Moldovan constitutional actors are actively cooperating, and according to Dainius Žalimas, the chairman of the Constitutional Court of Lithuania, this was inspired by the perception that countries are united when they have a real respect for the rule of law. Therefore, according to him, it is very significant that the jurisprudence of the Constitutional Court of the Republic of Moldova reflects the European geopolitical orientation, meaning that Moldova, in spite of political perturbations, must "not slip away" from the path towards EU integration.

Similar direction is being seen at the constitutional level within Ukraine, which is also pursuing a course similarly based on the experience of Lithuania. The Ukrainian parliament is considering law which clearly states in the preamble of the Ukrainian Constitution that the continuous strategic direction of the country will be focused on European and Euro-Atlantic integration. Moreover, the European aspect of Ukraine's identity would be better defined. Given that Ukraine's post-Soviet history has been the subject of near-constant political and electoral debate, a stated definition of such goals, reflected in the constitution, would be of particular importance and would provide greater strategic stability It is often feared that successful administrative work in developing reform packages and policies can be stopped at the political level, – in particular, when critical decisions are needed. Yet, the evidence above helps prove that the fears of rejection of well-prepared legislation (or fundamental changes) by hesitant politicians do not always prove to be true.

Thus, Lithuania directly contributes to the emergence of democratic, open economies in the Eastern Partnership countries. In pursuit of these goals, Lithuania actively utilizes EU institutions and forums that constantly raise the issues of Eastern Partnership policy, and keep these aspirations constantly within the focus of the political agenda.

The article was published in the most recent edition of Lithuanian Foreign Policy Review, an annual magazine by Eastern Europe studies center in Vilnius, Lithuania. Access to the full publication - http://www.eesc.lt/uploads/Lithuanian%20Foreign%20Policy%20Review%202018.pdf

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