What is EU’s strategy for the Eastern Partnership and how will it be affected by coronavirus?

Photo: pixel2013, Pixabay / CC0

Launched in Prague in 2009, the European Union’s Eastern Partnership (EaP) is a policy project that seeks to build bridges and help support the EU’ neighbours to the east – Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine. In March the European Commission published its plans for the future of the project. I spoke to analyst Pavel Havlíček from the Prague-based foreign policy NGO Association for International Affairs who was part of a team that recently published a Visegrad Insight study looking into possible EaP development scenarios about those plans and how they may be affected by the coronavirus.

Photo: pixel2013,  Pixabay / CC0

Effectiveness thus far

Mr Havlíček, last year, when negotiations about the future of the programme were being discussed, I spoke to Jaroslav Kurfürst, who is the Czech Republic’s Special Envoy for the Eastern Partnership. He told me back then that the vision of the project was to disrupt the geopolitical logic in the area, the system of power based international relations. How exactly would you define the Eastern Partnership? Is it a vessel for influence, as some fear?

Pavel Havlíček | Photo: Archive of Pavel Havlíček

“What we can see is that the original goals of the European Union neighbour policy were to bring stability, prosperity and security to the region. These are still valid options for the region from the European Union side.

“Obviously, in 2009, the Eastern Partnership elaborated on that and further added closer political association and deeper economic integration with the EU into that, so these are basically the values of the policy. However, we should not forget that other actors in the region, especially the Russian Federation, often understand this policy as a zero sum game and often sees it, as you mentioned, as a means to fight for the region and determine the future of these countries.”

Within those parameters that you have just delineated, do you think the Eastern Partnership has worked in its first 10 years?

“If we speak more fully, for example regarding prosperity, we can see that especially for associated countries - Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova - the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area actually helped these countries to promote their trade and exchange with the common European market.

“However, at the same time, when we look at the two remaining original goals, security and stability, we see that over the last decade actually these were not met. We now have another focal point of instability in Ukraine in the Donbas and we have the illegal annexation of Crimea as well as mounting pressure on the Belarus to integrate more closely with Russia. So on these two areas I can’t say that the Eastern Partnership would deliver and this is a moment for reflection.”

Future strategy

Earlier this year, in March, the European Commission set out its strategy for the Eastern Partnership programme in the coming years. What did you think of it when you read it?

“I think that this vision for the EaP beyond 2020 is a rather complex and comprehensive programme and set of priorities that the European Commission collected throughout the past year, when it organised public consultations on the future of the EaP. The Commission basically collected a large amount of ideas from member states, partner countries, civil society, think-tanks and other actors.

“I am convinced that there are big challenges ahead of us. We need to see the current pandemic as a shock for the European project, not just for domestic debates.”

“What we saw on March 19 was basically a common mixture of these ideas that were framed around five main policy goals - a stronger economy, a stronger approach to good governance, new priorities in the digital and green agendas, as well as the concept of resilience. The latter is quite interesting actually and a partial response to security and stability issues which we discussed earlier.

“However, to many, the communication was not ambitious enough, because the European Commission basically avoided the discussion regarding the political narrative - the vision for the future. If we say that there was a whole number of very concrete and interesting ideas, also for citizens of the partnership countries, we cannot say that this communication of the Commission really delivered on the future of the EaP and what it can deliver in the next decade.

One of the reasons I asked is because you and your colleagues in Visegrad Insights published a study titled: Eastern European Futures. Scenarios for the Eastern Partnership 2030, where you look into areas of cooperation and likely future developments in the relations between the European Union and its neighbours to the east. I was wondering, when you read this EU plan what sort of scenario do you think is most likely to come out?

“In our project we actually outlined four main options of what could happen to the region. What we spoke about in that communication of the European Commission’s plan, this would be the so-called first scenario for us. That means integration into the European project by small steps without any specific political promises regarding the future, no reference to future enlargement and these countries joining the European project, as well as no significant concessions to the three associated countries (Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia).

Photo: European Comission

“For example, there was an initiative called ‘Trial Strategy’, which would actually give the three more progressive countries additional value for closer cooperation with the European project. However, the Commission did not do that, so basically this more or less corresponds to the first of the scenarios.

“The other scenarios are basically built around the idea of closer cooperation between the EU and Russia. Another would be the EaP countries taking their own agenda in a scenario called ‘Civic Emancipation’. This would give a very strong impetus to the local reformers and civil society who would strive for modernisation without asking for a European perspective, which is basically not on the table now.

“Finally, we also pictured a dark scenario, which would basically see the EU embroiled in itself, having a chaotic time, which we now can very much see, and basically resigning on external relations and the future of its neighbourhood including in the east."

Coronavirus impact

You mentioned that last scenario. How much do you think the coronavirus plays in this, because many have criticised a lack of European cooperation in reaction to the virus? Do you think it will raise tensions within the EU rather and take away focus from making the EaP work?

“Everybody is very much aware that aside from the COVID-19 pandemic, we are also facing an ‘infodemic’. What Josep Borell [High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy] called a battle for narratives.”

“I am convinced that there are big challenges ahead of us. We need to see the current pandemic as a shock for the European project, not just for domestic debates. We have seen tensions in-between the EU institutions in Brussels and member states. There were many complaints that the EU institutions did not do enough.

“We can also see ongoing debates about solidarity within the EU itself, between north and south and many other problems. So this is a big worry.

We basically elaborated on this kind of shock scenario and we mentioned that the biggest danger would be the EU completely resigning on foreign policy and being kind of stuck at home. However, what we actually saw is the EU did not resign on its neighbourhood, we can see that in the Western Balkans, but also in Eastern partner countries.

“Although the initial response was rather fragmented and the EU’s reaction was delayed, we still saw a rather rapid response in the re-programming of the Commissions funding for the Western Balkan and Eastern Partnership states, we saw gradual return of the EU into the region, and we saw that there is a new investment plan for restarting the local economies.

“So there are a lot of initiatives coming out of Brussels now and therefore I am hopeful rather than being pessimistic. However, the actual important milestone for the [future] Eastern Partnership is coming in mid-June when the next summit of the EaP is coming. This should basically determine the future EaP policy and the concrete content for the future.”

Aside from the summit there is also the question of how the coronavirus will affect the EU’s Multiannual Financial Framework for the coming years. There is talk, for example, of cutting European Defence Agency spending. If we look at the EaP, what sort of planned expenditures do you think are really important not to cut for the plan to work?

“I think it is important to keep in mind that the original plan was actually to increase funding for the region. This was before the pandemic started. The plans were rather ambitious when it comes to financial aid and investment in the region.

Photo: Fernando Zhiminaicela,  Pixabay / CC0

“The negotiation process will take a few more months. We will likely see decisions in the second half of the year, during the German EU presidency. I am still hopeful. I believe that the EU will invest a significant amount of money. It might decrease, like we are likely to see in the area of defence as you mentioned.

“We have already talked a bit about the reprogramming of EU projects and priorities. The priority there was put on responding to the current medical and public health crisis, to boost the economy and support small and medium business.

“But aside from that, it was also to support civil society and the independent media, because everybody is very much aware that aside from the COVID-19 pandemic, we are also facing an ‘infodemic’. What Josep Borell [High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy] called a battle for narratives. We are also seeing this happening in Eastern Europe. Therefore, I am certain that the EU will not divert from these crucial points, among them also obviously the proposed European Commission goals that i spoke about earlier and the concept of resilience, which is rather interesting in this context.

“The concept of resilience basically diverts attention from traditional military means and puts focus on responding to new challenges in cyber affairs, cyber security, democratic resilience, green agenda and more. I think these should be the important areas that the European Commission outlined and I am certain that they will not change too much even despite the current pandemic.”

Green New Deal and the clash of narratives

I want to focus on a few of those examples you mentioned right now. In an article you penned for Visegrad Insight you say that “the Green New Deal offers an interesting opportunity for the Eastern Partnership region”. What do you mean by that?

“The Green New Deal is basically the ultimate expression of the European Union’s ambition to tackle the climate crisis. What is interesting is that the plan refers to this as an ambitious goal for Europe, not just for the EU itself. The EU wants to deliver on these ambitious goals in Europe, and we have seen there the commitment to carbon neutrality, cutting emissions and other important goals.

“The European Union’s [Green New Deal] targets will also be very much projected in the wider world through the so-called ‘EU green diplomacy’.”

“These targets will also be very much projected in the wider world through the so-called ‘EU green diplomacy’. This is a rather new concept and we are yet to see and better understand what it means in practice, also vis-a-vis the EaP countries. It is likely to result in much more attention as well as investment and funding into these states.

“This is why we presented it as an opportunity. If there is a stable and sufficient amount of funding invested in this area, we will be able to see considerably more energy efficiency in these countries, much more attention paid to carbon neutrality and the decrease of emissions. It goes down to very basic issues as well, such as the important investments into water management that are important in Georgia and other areas such as quality of air, soil, water and so on. We have to keep in mind that the EaP states are developing states, so the level of debate and ambition on these subjects was initially much lower without the EU’s involvement in the area of green diplomacy.”

Earlier you mentioned the clash of narratives. If there is an arena where that tends to happen it is social media. Many have accused the Russian Federation of using bots and fake news to influence European populations. Can the EU mount any successful countermeasure in this area beyond things such as, for example, the fact checker EUvsDisinfo? In other words, have you come across any new strategies related to this topic?

“Again, if we come back the European Commission’s communication, there is a whole section dedicated to strategic communication it obviously goes on beyond traditional fact checking and the very good work of EUvsDisinfo. Even when speaking of this specific initiative, we need to bear in mind that these are not only people who basically debunk malign influence operations and information manipulations by Russia and its propaganda, but also they invest a substantial amount of time in working with journalists from EaP countries who are involved in developing the capacity of local media. These are things that the EU is committed to and will continue working on.

“If we look at the communication that I mentioned, we can also see targets of support to independent media, civil society and much closer attention paid to strategic communication, as well as the EU’s presence in EaP countries, which should better explain the added value of the Eastern Partnership to local populations. Furthermore, and this must be done in cooperation with the EaP member states, the increase in ownership of the common project when it comes to cooperation within the EaP countries themselves.”

Role of the Czech Republic

Finally, I just wanted to ask you how important is the role of the Czech Republic in the Eastern Partnership? Some people have criticised the Czech Republic for not sending enough money towards relief programs connected to the coronavirus pandemic.

“I have to say that, not only did Czechia stand at the beginning of the Eastern Partnership project during its founding in Prague in 2009, but also it has very concretely and consistently contributed to the project which is still very much a foreign policy priority for the Czech Republic.”

“I would argue otherwise. Obviously this is a question of resources and political will as well. We do not always see that to full extent, for example from Prime Minister Andrej Babiš. However, I have to say that, not only did Czechia stand at the beginning of the Eastern Partnership project during its founding in Prague in 2009, but also it has very concretely and consistently contributed to the project which is still very much a foreign policy priority for the Czech Republic. I would illustrate this through a couple of examples.

“One of them would be the fact that the Foreign Ministry through its transition programme is investing to a large degree in EaP countries, it is supporting local civil society, independent media, but also sharing its transformational know-how from the 1990s and some of the successes that Czechia went through over the past 20-30 years. This is a very consistent and rather technical approach, very much appreciated by our partners in the region.

“Another example is that, unlike some other EU member states, Czechia has embassies throughout the six countries and is paying quite a lot of attention to them diplomatically, often reacting to malign operations, or problems in the so-called de-facto states and separatist regions such as Abkhazia which Czechia refused to acknowledge very openly and very critically.

“Czechia and its diplomacy is thus involved. Lastly, I would just like to give two more examples. One is regarding the future of the Eastern Partnership. It was Czechia, which during its VIsegrad Group presidency actually initiated a common appeal from the four partner states of that group for a certain vision that it has got for the policy in the region for the period beyond 2020. This action illustrates the Czech approach as a constructive and rather concrete one.

“Finally, to the reference you mentioned that Czechia did not donate enough through the fundraising efforts organised by the European Commission, Actually, for the Eastern Partnership, Czechia, together with its other VIsegrad partners, initiated a special fund called ‘V4EastSolidarity’, which served as a point of reference and fundraising for the EaP countries to help them tackle the COVID-19 pandemic. This emerged again as one of the very concrete proposals through the Czech presidency.”