Quo Vadis Eastern Partnership?
On 23 November 2017, the European Endowment for Democracy (EED) hosted the conference Quo Vadis Eastern Partnership? A Retrospective look into The Future in cooperation with Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum, EUROPEUM Institute for European Policy, Open Society European Policy Institute, Slovak Foreign Policy Association and Think Visegrad Platform.
On the eve of the 5th Eastern Partnership Summit, held for the first time in Brussels, the conference was an opportunity to discuss achievements and challenges of the Eastern Partnership (EaP).
EED Executive Director Jerzy Pomianowski opened the event, underling that in terms of achievements, “the biggest paradigm shift has been in the increased recognition of the role of civil society”. Keynote speaker Linas Linkevičius, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Lithuania, emphasised the need for the EU to be more proactive in defending the common values shared by both sides and step up its engagement in the region.
“Today’s situation is more than a “geopolitical game”; it is a battle for the hearts and minds of citizens”, said Linkevičius.
The opening panel also included Natalia Yerashevich, Director of Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum Secretariat and Zuzana Stuchlíková, Director of Brussels Office, EUROPEUM Institute for European Policy/Think Visegrad platform.
Panel 1 | Assessing policy performance: the Eastern Partnership on the eve of the Brussels summit
During the first panel, moderated by Iskra Kirova, Senior Policy Analyst at Open Society European Policy Institute, six experts working on or in the EaP countries had the opportunity to take stock of the current situation and set out their expectations vis-à-vis the EU.
- Dmytro Shulga of International Renaissance Foundation explained that, contrary to other EaP countries, society in Ukraine is very receptive to the EU message. "In a country where there is no single stakeholder, the EU should behave as a stakeholder and push for more reforms’’ said Shulga.
- Vano Chkhikvadze, representing Open Society Georgia Foundation, stated that, according to a recent poll, 71% of the population in Georgia supports EU integration. The Georgian government is open to dialogue with civil society, but a high level of corruption prevails. Chkhikvadze deplored the lack of vision from both sides about the future of the EaP policy and called for an EU-Georgia summit.
- Timur Onica, EED Programme Officer for Belarus and Moldova, claimed that Belarus has produced visible output such as an increased dialogue on human rights. Media and civil society are de facto allowed to operate, however without legal guarantees. “Belarus made some small steps, but real change is not there yet”, criticised Onica. He then turned to Moldova, which he described as a “front-runner” among EaP countries, being the first to obtain visa-free travel to the EU and to sign the Deep and Comprehensive Free-Trade Agreement. “However, after conditionality was lifted, no significant reforms have been implemented in Moldova”, Onica said. Moreover, he remarked that recent law initiatives had detrimental effects, such as the new media law that wiped out local and opposition media, and the new electoral reform that hinders political pluralism.
- Boris Navasardyan, President of Yerevan Press Club highlighted that the EU upheld its support to Armenia even after the country joined the Eurasian Economic Union. According to him, after a short while, the Armenian people saw the uselessness of the EEC and started to appreciate the EU more. A stimulating factor was the presentation of the EU integration index for EaP countries, as it added competitiveness for civil society organisations, said Navasardyan.
- Ziya Guliyev, Chair of the Center for Legal Initiatives, urged politicians to include regional problems in the agenda, such as conflict setting in Nagorno-Karabakh. He also called on the EU to give more support to civil society organisations in Azerbaijan.
Human rights and democracy cannot be discussed only at the Summits - they have to be a priority in the overall approach”, Guliyev said.
As regards expectations towards the EU, the experts agreed that the EU should differenciate its strategy and EaP deliverables according to each country. In certain areas, a multilateral dimension could be applied, for example in strategic communication. Therefore, they expressed the wish for a "deep and comprehensive change’’ of the EaP policy.
The speakers also expressed disappointment that in the European Commission’s White Paper on the future of Europe the EaP countries are not even mentioned, despite the fact that a European perspective is crucial for them. As Vano Chikhikvadze stated, “no matter how much we discuss at Summits, only the perspective of EU accession can bring real change in EaP countries’’.
Panel 2 | Eastern Partnership Quo Vadis? Expectations and recommendations for the next steps
Experts of the second panel, which was moderated by Adam Balcer from Think Visegrad platform, examined the EU’s response to the emerging trends in the region.
- Deputy Head of Unit from DG NEAR Diana Jablonska confirmed the renewed engagement of the European Commission in the EaP policy. The EC wants to increase its finances, improve its outreach in the region through intermediary organisations and give greater support to grassroots initiatives. Other experts reminded participants that the EaP policy is a very ambitious project, and that its architecture should be changed in order to fit the needs of the individual countries.
- Rebecca Harms, MEP, noted that the EU must be more visible in EaP countries, especially in the local communities outside of the capitals. Furthermore, it is paramount that the EU remains credible in the eyes of the citizens. If their economic hardship keeps growing, then they might lose their belief in the EU.
"A more urgent question than economic liberalisation is filling gaps in the social situation in EaP countries, through the fight against corruption and the unfair distribution of wealth”, said Rebecca Harms.
- Alexander Duleba, Director of the Research Centre at the Slovak Foreign Policy Association, called for a closer cooperation between the EU and EaP countries in the legislative process. In order to establish a real partnership, he claimed, EaP countries must have a say on the legislation, not just absorb it.
- Zsuzsanna Vegh, Researcher at Europa-Universität Viadrina, underlined the importance of addressing the local and rural communities in EaP countries, to ensure that the process of integration with the EU leads to a sustainable change.
In her concluding remarks, Miriam Lexmann, EU Regional Programme Director at International Republican Institute, argued that politicians need to engage more with citizens and stop talking down to them. Genuine support to civil society, democratic political parties and disadvantaged citizens should be at the core of the Eastern Partnership.
See the full photo gallery of the event on Flickr.