Was the Czech EU presidency’s Eastern Partnership summit a success?

Photo: www.eu2009.cz

The Eastern Partnership is an EU initiative which sets out to strengthen ties with six of the bloc’s Eastern neighbours; amongst them, Ukraine, Georgia and, most controversially, Belarus. The idea, championed by the Czech presidency of the European Union, was launched formally in Prague on Thursday.

In one of his last roles as Czech prime minister, Mirek Topolánek opens the EU’s Eastern Partnership summit – perhaps somewhat euphemistically. ‘Everyone is expecting something different from the partnership’, he says, when behind the scenes there have been mutterings about an all-out lack of consensus within the EU about what the scheme should try to achieve. Elsa Tulmets is a research fellow at Prague’s Institute of International Relations, she says the idea of an Eastern Partnership has ‘evolved’:

“There have been many discussions since the original Czech proposition from 2007-2008, and it was the Polish-Swedish proposition which was circulated and finally accepted at the European level. I would say the main difference between the two was that the Czechs were more into flexibility and having a less institutionalized partnership, and the Poles and the Swedes were more into having institutions more or less alongside the same lines as the Mediterranean Union. So yes, there has been an evolution from the initial project, and the Czech contribution was quite interesting, but in the end it was not what was accepted by the other member states, they favoured more this Polish-Swedish proposition.”

Several of Europe’s most influential leaders were notable by their absence at Thursday’s summit. Nicolas Sarkozy sent French prime minister Francois Fillon in his stead and Silvio Berlusconi sent his apologies, citing ‘family reasons’ for his absence. This lead to speculation that the partnership does not enjoy the support of each of the EU’s member states – speculation which was quashed by British Foreign Secretary David Miliband, in Prague on Thursday instead of Prime Minister Gordon Brown:

“There was unanimous support in the European Council from heads of state and government, at successive European Councils, to support this partnership. They have put money behind it as well as political muscle behind it, and I think that this initiative has the very strong support of every head of government represented here.

“The prime minister has got many, many competing demands on his time. But he has been a strong supporter, not just of the enlargement of the European Union, but of a strong Neighbourhood Policy for the European Union. And that is why I am here representing that today.”

With low attendance amongst the eastern partners themselves at Thursday’s launch – Moldova’s Vladimir Voronin and Belarus’s Alexander Lukashenko both stayed away – can the Eastern Partnership really be deemed a success? Yes, says Elsa Tulmets:

“Well I think to some extent the Eastern Partnership was a success, because it is a way for the European Union to propose a new policy towards the East, there was no policy towards the East before this. So, it is really a success from this perspective. And it is also a way for the European Union to show that it is able to formulate a policy, like Russia has been able to formulate a policy, towards these countries.

Photo: CTK
“As far as the attendance of this EU summit itself is concerned, of course, some of the big personalities like Sarkozy, Berlusconi and Gordon Brown were not there. But I think that this is more because of internal political issues here in the Czech Republic. Because there has been this change of government, I think some politicians are not wanting to meet future Czech politicians who are, in their eyes, not as important as those who have been in power up until this point.”

The Eastern Partnership sets out to strengthen trade, and potentially facilitate travel, between the EU and the six countries involved. But the scheme is not designed to pave the way to full EU membership, yet, for countries such as Ukraine and Moldova. Elsa Tulmets again:

“Some countries were a bit disappointed, like Ukraine, or Georgia or Moldova to an extent, but let’s say mostly Ukraine. Because they were expecting a more engaged policy from the European Union, in terms of EU accession or prospective membership and so on. But since 2003, this has been quite clear that the EU’s current policy does not have as its aim the admission of other countries. At some point they can help prepare these countries for accession if this is their political aim. But right now, this is not what the EU is doing. So of course, some of the countries might have been a bit disappointed because they expected the European Union to go further with their proposition.”

Speaking on Thursday, however, former Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek said that it was not a case of either-or, and that eastern partners could continue to prepare for EU membership if that was their eventual aim:

“This is not supposed to replace or erase a country’s hopes of EU membership. This is one of the keystones of the partnership. A country’s aspirations to EU membership can run alongside its role as an eastern partner of the bloc. The Eastern Partnership allows countries to strengthen their bilateral and multilateral relations with the EU. It gives countries a chance to choose their own tempo, their own priorities in the course of this process.”

The Eastern Partnership has come under fire from Russia, with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov calling the scheme ‘completely unacceptable’ and accusing the EU of trying to ‘extend its sphere of influence’ through the partnership. On Thursday, EU Foreign Policy Chief Javier Solana responded:

“Some comments from Russian leaders have not been very constructive vis-à-vis this meeting. We have explained to them on many, many occasions, from the presidency down to the leaders of the Russian federation, the significance of this partnership. This is not against Russia, in fact Russia probably, and maybe Turkey, will be cooperating in some of the programmes which will eventually be in place. This is the philosophy with which we begin this process.”

The Eastern Partnership was one of the biggest initiatives to be launched during the Czech Republic’s EU presidency. Why did the Czechs champion the project to the extent that they did? Again, Elsa Tulmets:

José Manuel Barroso, Mirek Topolánek (right), photo: CTK
“On the Czech side I think there are some issues which are interesting, because there are some facets of the Eastern Partnership which coordinate with the Czech Republic’s own foreign policy towards the East. If you look at Ukraine, for example, there is very strong interest on the Czech side to coordinate with Ukraine on migration issues, visa issues and also trade issues. And also with Moldova – the Czech Republic has defined Moldova as one of the priority countries in the field of development policy.

“But I think the question of having the launch of this new idea within the Czech presidency of the European Union was also a big way of showing the Czech Republic is there in the EU, that it is also able to shape, to some extent, the European Union’s foreign policy and I think that this was one of the main messages that the Czech government wanted to give.”

At the launch of the Eastern Partnership in Prague, millions of euros were earmarked to enhance the region’s economies and strengthen ties between the EU and its eastern neighbours. How strong those ties actually become will be seen in the coming years.