On December 12, the foreign ministers of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine will meet (via video link) with their 27 EU counterparts in Brussels for a scheduled three-hour "Eastern Partnership (EaP) foreign ministers meeting." Few concrete outcomes are expected -- and the question likely on the minds of many politicians and bureaucrats is whether the Eastern Partnership has outlived its purpose.
Created back in 2009 after a Polish-Swedish initiative, the EaP aimed to bring six former Soviet republics closer to the bloc without the explicit offer of future membership.
Since then, the goalposts have moved several times, complicating the initiative's original focus. The Russian invasion of Ukraine in February led to Brussels taking the historic decision in June to recognize both Moldova and Ukraine as EU candidate countries, plus selecting a slightly behind Georgia as a potential candidate.
But the Eastern Partnership has also seen two other members -- Armenia and Azerbaijan -- waging war against each other in 2020, with substantial clashes still occurring this year. And Belarus suspended its participation in the partnership in 2021 after it was sanctioned by the EU for its brutal crackdown on people protesting election results widely viewed as falsified.
Yet despite the obvious contradictions and complications of treating the six countries as a mini-bloc, Brussels will most likely persist with the Eastern Partnership for now.
Deep Background: If you ask officials from Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine privately about the EaP, you probably won't be bowled over with praise. Yes, they are happy about what the partnership has delivered previously, in terms of visa-free travel for their citizens and association agreements with the bloc that include free-trade deals.
But after having spent the last few years pushing for even closer relations, officials from Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine are quietly expressing concern that the Eastern Partnership will get in the way of their newly won EU accession statuses. And the idea of being grouped together with the authoritarian regimes of Azerbaijan and Belarus isn't exactly appealing either.
As these things normally tend to work, the officials' public positions are a little more moderate. According to Brussels bureaucrats I have spoken to, officials from the Eastern Partnership countries have apparently given the go-ahead to continue with the current setup.
And in a discussion paper ahead of the December 12 meeting -- authored by the Czech Republic, Poland, and Romania, and seen by RFE/RL -- it states that, "despite openly voiced skepticisms," Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine are "assessing what could be the added value of the EaP in the accession process." The paper concludes that "the EaP remains a relevant framework, which has not exhausted its full regional potential and can continue to have a purpose for all partners."
- So, what does this all mean? Brussels has urged the three countries to come up with suggestions for how the partnership can be used in the future to prepare them for EU membership. Don't be surprised if there are more proposals from Brussels about physical infrastructure connecting the Eastern partners with the EU. Or perhaps we might see the trio of countries getting more access to the EU's digital market, for instance by enjoying the same "roam-like-home" provisions that EU citizens currently do.
- As always, Russia is the elephant in the room. The country is hardly mentioned in summit declarations or conclusions. The aforementioned discussion paper points out that the partners all "share common threats, especially in the security domain whose source is mainly Russia's malign activity." So it's very likely that the EU will propose more assistance, money, and resources to combat Russian disinformation and to boost cybersecurity.
- And then there will be the call for the EU to do more to defuse conflicts in the region. Look no further than European Council President Charles Michel's recent efforts to facilitate dialogue between Armenia and Azerbaijan, with another Brussels meeting between the two countries' leaders in the pipeline. Also expect the bloc, before the winter holidays, to extend the monitoring mission on the Armenian side of the border, which was agreed back in October.
While the EU, unlike Turkey and Russia, is seen as more of an honest broker by both Baku and Yerevan, questions do remain as to whether the bloc really can guarantee the safety of the people in Azerbaijani's breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh.
- And then, what to do about Belarus? There is still hope that Minsk will return to the fold, hopefully with a more democratic leadership. At the last Eastern Partnership summit in Brussels in 2021, there was an empty chair representing the country. Officials in Brussels are considering whether to fill that chair with a representative from Belarus's democratic opposition for the next big meeting.
- It isn't clear when the next Eastern Partnership summit might be. Normally, they are held every other year, so there should be one in 2023. There is a push for Stockholm to host it during Sweden's stint as president of the Council of the European Union in the first half of next year, but the Swedish diplomats I have spoken to are less sure, saying that a summit without any concrete "deliverables" wouldn't do much justice to the Eastern Partnership at the moment.
Kosovo is expected to officially hand in its EU membership application in Brussels on December 15, just ahead of the EU summit that starts later that day. Member states are likely "to take note" of the application, although the big question remains of how to proceed with five member states still not recognizing Kosovo's independence.
There is more movement in the EU-Western Balkans relationship. Bosnia-Herzegovina is expected to be recognized as an official EU candidate country. This might happen either when the bloc's Europe ministers meet on December 13 in Brussels to discuss and adopt so-called "conclusions" on EU enlargement, or it might be announced when EU leaders convene for a summit in the Belgian capital on December 15-16.
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