Kakha Gogolashvili, Senior Fellow at the Rondeli Foundation
The three EU associated states of Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine, after several years of advice and nudging from the side of civil society and the expert community, have initiated a trilateral cooperation.
It is important to know that six civil society platforms of these three associated countries signed an agreement in Brussels in December 2019 which aimed to join efforts and push their governments to establish regional cooperation (similar to the Višegrad-4 format) mutually supporting and coordinating their work on European integration and deepening trade and political cooperation, including on issues of security and sectoral cooperation.
The three countries, frequently now mentioned as the “Associated Trio” (the term is credited to Lithuanian MEP Andrius Kubilius), signed a Memorandum of Understanding on May 17, 2021 between their Ministries of Foreign Affairs. The memorandum is entitled “On Establishing Enhanced Cooperation on European Integration – the “Association Trio”. It initiates dialogue between the foreign ministries of Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine on matters of common interest related to European integration, including cooperation within the Eastern Partnership. The form of cooperation established by the memorandum is still far from the ambition that civil society tried to inspire within their governments. The memorandum tells little about the extension of cooperation and a deep free trade regime among the Trio members themselves but looks more towards supporting consultations and mutual engagement in their bilateral cooperation with the EU. Still, it can help to initiate the creation of a block of the three associated states focused on trade, security (namely hybrid threats) and sectoral cooperation (energy, transport, other). The deepening of cooperation between the Trio states will certainly increase their chances for further integration with the EU.
An important step in this process was marked by the Trio’s presidential summit held in Batumi (Georgia) on July 20, 2021 with the EU’s participation at the highest level; namely, the President of the European Council. The summit declaration once again confirmed the will of the three countries to enhance and consolidate their cooperation for the sake of their joint advancement towards EU membership. They also committed to work on “concrete priorities” in the areas of common interest in order to enhance political dialogue and advance economic and political integration with the EU in the fields of transport, green economy, digital transformation, green energy, justice and home affairs, strategic communications and health care. Progress in their relations, according to the declaration, will be seen in the reform of institutions and the extensive approximation of legislations to the EU Acquis. Increasing the resilience of all three states stresses the need for their closer cooperation with the EU in CSDP issues, countering hybrid threats, including cyber security, and the coordination of efforts in strategic communication. The summit declaration stresses that European integration does not have an alternative for each of the three countries and that they will stand united in achieving the goal of the recognition of their European perspectives by the EU. The President of the European Council recognized and supported the initiation of this trilateral cooperation in his remarks at the summit. This also gives us hope as to the possibility of the establishment of a dialogue between the Trio and the EU outside of the EaP format. The quadrilateral dialogue may be conducted on the top (heads of states and governments) and ministerial levels. In the future, the interaction between the Trio and the EU can also develop into the creation of an exclusive format.
The trend is promising and the Trio is on its way towards creating real regional cooperation. The three countries have practically the same conditions in their trade in goods and services with the EU as the Western Balkan (WB) states, which are largely recognized as potential and actual candidates for EU membership. Indeed, the Trio countries have not yet established a similar intra-regional area and Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova’s trade with each other is based on the 1994 CIS FTA bilateral agreements. The aforementioned agreements are not deep and comprehensive and do not stipulate the removal of non-tariff barriers among themselves. The Association Agreements do not recognize a diagonal cumulation of the rules of origin between the three countries when they trade with the EU. All of the three countries participate in wider regional formats like GUAM and BSEC but none of two focuses on issues of European integration.
Looking beyond the present move for Trio is highly advisable in terms of establishing of an exclusive format for cooperation and exchange of experience and the mutual support of common objectives. Such a practice was/is widely used by countries aspiring to EU membership at different times such as the Višegrad 4, the Baltic Council, the Regional Cooperation Council (RCC) and the Central European Free Trade Area (CEFTA) in the Balkans. All of these formats have been created to mutually reinforce European integration and develop closer cooperation and integration among “EU aspirant” countries of a particular region. Political declarations and memorandums alone are not enough. Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia are three countries which need to establish a regional format/platform/organization for cooperation on European integration issues. The format would consolidate the efforts of the aforementioned countries to further adopt European values and establish deeper political, economic, security and other types (including wider sectoral) of cooperation/integration. The integration of the associated Trio will build an attractive common market with joint institutions able to negotiate the creation of an economic area with the EU in the future, similar to the European Economic Area (EEA) created between the EU and the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) back in 1992.