Kakha Gogolashvili, Senior Fellow at the Rondeli Foundation
The Eastern Partnership Summit on 15 December 2021 hosted the EU and partner countries’ heads of state and Government in Brussels; however, instead of six countries, only five were represented. These countries were: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. This time Belarus was not represented at the summit for well-known reasons. First of all, it should be noted that the EU did not even plan to invite Belarus to the summit; however, the Belarusian authorities announced a few months earlier that they had suspended their participation in the Eastern Partnership format. It is noteworthy that the EU did not close the door on Belarus but indicated that it is ready to resume cooperation with the country’s authorities only after a democratic “transition” (practically – change of government) in the country which will allow a dialogue based on common values.
How Can We Understand the New Eastern Partnership Agenda?
The results of the summit were not unexpected in every respect. Following the Eastern Partnership Summit in 2017, the EU adopted important guidelines that clearly set out the directions for the development of this initiative. In 2020, the European Commission published a document containing the goals and objectives of the Eastern Partnership after 2020. It set out precisely those main tasks that were agreed upon at the December 15 summit. The Covid-19 pandemic had indeed a serious impact on the establishment of new EU approaches for the region. Strengthening the resilience of partner countries has, therefore, been identified as a top priority which is seen as the ability of countries to withstand exogenous as well as endogenous shocks and challenges in the fields of economy, environment, energy, security and health. The cooperation in this regard is aimed at improving governance as well as mobilizing a wide spectrum of investments. To achieve resilience, the Eastern Partnership countries must improve the rule of law and human rights standards, ensure public consent and make every effort to resolve conflicts. At the same time, to strengthen the resilience of the partners, close cooperation in fighting hybrid threats is in the pipeline; in particular, in the areas of strategic communication, cyber security, CBRN (chemical, biological, radiation and nuclear threats) and other relevant areas.
According to the new approach, the long-term development goals of the Eastern Partnership countries are in full compliance with the development directions of the EU itself, such as:
- Promoting the digital economy, including digital market and the cybersecurity measures;
- Green transition, including development of green economy, renewable energy sources and energy efficiency;
- Education for the young people in line with modern trends which will also incorporate the requirements of digital development;
- Sectoral development and cooperation in the field of agriculture, innovation and the development of transportation links as well as in terms of telecommunications and easing money transfers. Here, we mean specific projects, such as:
- TEN-T connecting the countries of the region European transport networks;
- Roaming telephone service discount agreements;
- Participation in SEPA (Single European Payment Area).
It was not unexpected for the Eastern Partnership to see the EU Economic Investment Plan in the Declaration which directs multibillion-dollar investments to develop countries in the region with the support of specific flagship initiatives. The plan envisions financial support for 80,000 small and medium-sized enterprises in Georgia, the construction of a high-voltage underwater power line on the Black Sea seabed, the delivery of high-speed internet to remote areas in the country and the improvement of the air quality in Tbilisi.
There is also talk to increase solidarity in managing the current epidemic and overcoming medium to long-term consequences which requires, first and foremost, mutual assistance and combined efforts in the field of health.
Prospects for Further Integration and Recognition of the Associated Trio
As always, many in Georgia look forward to events such as the Eastern Partnership Summit. Hopes emerge that something important will change at the summit regarding Georgia’s EU membership prospects. This is even more so when the representatives of the newly formed “Associated Trio” – the Foreign Ministries of Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine – had developed a common position and actively lobbied with the EU institutions to formally recognize the “European perspective” for these countries. Two weeks prior to the summit, the foreign ministers and the prime ministers of the Trio went to Brussels together in order to try and include the issue in the summit declaration. Unfortunately, some of the EU member states did not support such an entry in the joint declaration and limited themselves to re-acknowledging the European choice and aspirations of the “Associated Trio” which has long been included in the Association Agreements with those countries.
The fact that the Associated Trio is mentioned in the Declaration and that the efforts of “growing coordination” between its members are positively assessed underscores the implementation of the principle of differentiation in practice within the Eastern Partnership format. However, the founding documents of the Associated Trio have a broader purpose than that of the “coordination of the implementation of the Association Agreement” as stated in the Summit Joint Declaration. It includes the “determination …to work towards joining the European Union” (Joint Statement issued by the Heads of State/Governments of the Associated Trio following the 6th Eastern Partnership Summit) which is neither welcomed nor mentioned in the summit declaration. On the contrary, the declaration clearly sets the limits for the support the EU can render to these three countries in realizing their ambitions. In particular, it is a deep and comprehensive free trade area, deepening sectoral cooperation and joining new initiatives in the EU such as the digital economy and the Green Agreement. To further bolster and clarify such a limited approach in support of the Trio’s goals, the declaration emphasizes the inclusiveness of cooperation with the EU in all (listed) forms. This means that the Trio countries are not offered anything different from that of the other Eastern Partnership countries. We can conclude that the summit declaration at this point puts an end to the idea of offering any exclusive opportunity to the Trio countries. However, in reality, such an “egalitarian” format of the Eastern Partnership still contains insurmountable barriers for the countries that have less ambitions for integration and as their main obstacle face the lack of respect towards the European values and unwillingness to implement them. For their part, countries whose ambition goes beyond the opportunity of simply privileged cooperation with the EU will inevitably receive a European Perspective if the format modalities are used effectively and this may even happen at the next summit.
Although the goal of identifying these three countries in an exclusive context was not achieved, it might be the result of our efforts that the “associated” countries are separated from the other ones in the section of joint declaration where the partners are discussed. The emphasis is on the fact that these three countries are given a real opportunity for broader trade and economic cooperation with the EU and the gradual integration into the EU single market as a result of their progress and the further approximation of their legislation. This seems to be a well-known formula but in a new context and at a new level of integration ambitions. For these three countries, it may point to the prospect of creating a common economic space with the EU.