More than ever, the Eastern Partnership (EaP) needs new incentives to be strengthened and re-organized. The Riga Summit is an appropriate time and place to rigorously analyze how to address the weaknesses of the EaP and how to maximize its efficacy. For Moldova this is an important meeting, because it takes place in the context of shrinking public support for a pro-EU agenda. The pro-European political parties seem to have lost their connection with local realities, and many crucial reforms are deadlocked.
Initially, the Eastern Partnership (EaP) was designed to bring the EaP countries closer to the EU by stimulating cooperation and promoting reforms. However, during the six years of its existence, the EaP has been hit by various problems highlighting several structural weaknesses of the initiative.
Firstly, the EaP is facing the harsh reality of weak or dysfunctional institutions and an unstable political landscape in the majority of the EaP countries. The EU has ignored the issue that some of the political parties, which are supposedly the EU’s major allies, include a number of opportunists or individuals accused of being corrupt. The parties themselves also use pro-European rhetoric to cover their misdeeds and ensure their own political survival. Consequently, the lack of trust towards the political establishment in the EaP countries has negative consequences for the overall support for the EU and the EaP.
Secondly, EaP does not sufficiently take into account Russia’s position in the region and its control and influence over the political, economic and social systems of the EaP countries. This has already allowed Russian stakeholders to exercise pressure on countries that have refused to reverse or slow down the process of association and integration with the EU. By neglecting the Russian factor and its capacity to act, the EaP’s authors omitted obvious risks and threats coming from the East. The EaP was a good-weather project that was simply not meant to be an instrument of countering external risks. This is seen as a weakness by Russia and was used to destabilize Ukraine, put pressure on Moldova and Georgia and change the external orientation of Armenia. Moreover, the EaP does not fully correspond with the regional realpolitik where Russian-led Eurasian initiatives, the Customs Union and Eurasian Economic Union are gaining support among the political stakeholders from the EaP countries. Issues such as security and its broader application in areas including energy, military, as well as societal dimensions, are not envisaged in the current set-up of the EaP.
Thirdly, the EaP does not sufficiently address the differing priorities of the EaP countries, wasting effort to fix different problems by using the same tools. The observance of human rights and rule of law should be unconditional across all partner states but beyond this more differentiation is needed. There is a great need to anchor the EaP into local settings, taking into account the contradictions between the needs and priorities of the countries involved. For example, Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine are making efforts to promote a European [EU membership] perspective for them at the Riga Summit. However, Belarus and Armenia are searching for ways to develop cooperation with the EU whilst also remaining members of the Eurasian Economic Union. Whereas Azerbaijan wants to keep its geopolitical neutrality and focus exclusively on the economy and energy in its dialogue with the EU.
What is Moldova’s experience with the EaP? Bilateral cooperation between Moldova and the EU has reached its highest level so far, based on the implementation of the ambitious Association Agreement and the DCFTA. However, permanent political instability validates concerns about the fulfillment of these commitments, generating uncertainty over the sustainability of the pro-European government and the future of the European agenda. This is paralleled by a growing sympathy among the population for Russian geopolitical projects – some recent polls showed more than 50% support for the Customs Union and less than 40% for the EU.
Overall, Moldova is far from being united when it comes to choosing the formula for the development of the country and the model to be followed. The pro-Russia political parties have efficiently used the disillusionment of the population with the pro-EU political actors in order to promote the Eurasian projects. To save the European vector of the country, the pro-EU camp needs to be boosted. New and genuinely pro-EU political alternatives should replace some of the “fake” pro-European parties, and the EU can play a role by using its tools of persuasion and conditionality. Otherwise, the threat that Moldova will follow the Armenian path may be realised.
Expectations regarding the Riga Summit are higher among the pro-EU political elite than within a population that is faced with daily news about defrauded public money, losses in the national banking system and the sinking of the national currency. Of course, the Moldovan authorities would like to be praised at the Riga Summit on the basis of previous achievements, like visa liberalization with the EU. But they are also aware that criticism concerning the crisis in the banking system (which caused a loss of approximately 1 billion EUR) cannot be avoided and that the EU continues to wait for this problem to be effectively addressed.
Together with Georgia and Ukraine, Moldova will keep insisting on a clear statement from the EU in favour of the European aspirations of the three EaP countries. However, it is obvious that the EU faces a transformation of its entire European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) reshaped by taking into account the particularities of all the regions, but not be ready for any ground-breaking announcements. There are therefore three major issues that should be on the agenda at the Riga Summit.
Firstly, the EU should reiterate the importance of reforms, reminding the Moldovan government about the commitments to deliver. This is important to rebuild public trust in the EU.
Secondly, the EU should commit to offer more assistance to Ukraine, also ensuring solid support for and monitoring of the reform agenda. A successful Ukraine means a more functional EaP and a favorable influence over the entire region, including Moldova.
Last but not least, the Riga Summit should focus on the means to counteract the propaganda used by Russia against the pro-European forces in the EaP countries. Within the EU Delegations based in EaP countries, it is necessary to develop more structured, consistent, accessible (also to Russian-speaking citizens) and dynamic tools of communication. This will make the EU more understandable for the public and will help to raise the awareness about the benefits and costs of the European integration.
To sum up, in the current geopolitical environment, that Riga summit represents a moment of recapitulation and reflection over the EaP rather than a place for making new promises, even to the most devoted pro-EU countries.
The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges of our time.