Estonia and the Eastern Partnership: the view from Tallinn

Commentary



A lack of ambition in Eastern Partnership policy would be detrimental to the EU's as well as Estonia's interests.

As the Riga summit approaches, the Eastern Partnership (EaP) is very much in focus. As always, big deliverables are expected from summits. This time, no game-changing Association Agreements will be signed, but it is to be hoped that positive messages will emerge about the progress of the implementation of the agreements and about visa issues. This EaP summit is taking place within the broader context of the review of the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP), in many ways as a consequence of Russia’s destabilisation of the eastern neighbourhood as well as of the deteriorating situation in the south. It is important that the EaP policy should not be weakened in this process.

Since the launch of the European Union’s EaP policy in 2009, Estonia has been one of the policy’s biggest supporters. The Estonian Government has identified EaP as one of its foreign policy priorities and the creation of the Estonian Center of Eastern Partnership in 2011 was one manifestation of this commitment. However, the mission is definitely much broader than just an intergovernmental undertaking. Especially in light of recent events in Ukraine, Estonian society wishes very strongly to assist the EaP countries.  One example of the more prominent role that civil society is taking is the significant increase in activities being carried out by Estonian Civil Society Organisations in EaP countries, whether in working for reform or assisting the huge number of Internally Displaced People in Ukraine.

In Estonian public discourse, EaP is first and foremost perceived as a framework for developing bilateral relations with the six partner countries – Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Belarus. The EU’s EaP initiative is seen as a useful tool, not as an ultimate goal. The main aim is fostering the well-being, stability, and democratisation of EaP countries, and by doing so, making the neighbouring region more prosperous and stable. This has led to close interaction between Estonia and the three associated states – Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine. This cooperation, again, includes many societal groups as well as the countries’ governments, because various sectors of society in these countries feel they can benefit from Estonian transition experience. 

Since the Vilnius summit in 2013, Estonian society has viewed the EaP with growing scepticism, above all because of the policy’s lack of ambition and the absence of an EU membership perspective for the associated EaP states. This is considered to be one of the main demotivating factors for those societies, which is hindering their reform processes. In Estonian public debate, people genuinely seem not to understand why this perspective, or “a carrot”, cannot be put in place to incentivise the EaP countries. No one in Estonia takes seriously the prospect of Ukraine, Moldova, or Georgia becoming EU member states in the near future, but the long-term option should be there. This perception is very much based on Estonian own experience – the reform process, one of the true success stories of the EU’s transformative power, was not easy for the country, and without a clear EU perspective, the situation would have been much more difficult. Explaining the difficult reform process and showing the benefits of the transformation to society at large has also been one of the priority issues for the Estonian Center of Eastern Partnership. The Center has focused its efforts on enhancing the capacity of local people to take ownership of communicating the positive effects of the reforms.

What implications will all this have for the Estonian position on the ENP review, to be completed by the end of this year? One aspect that seems to be changing within Estonian public discourse on the ENP is that there is a growing understanding of shared responsibility in the entire neighbourhood. The tragic events in the Mediterranean are increasingly becoming an internal issue for Estonians.

ENP countries have different ambitions as regards their relations with the EU, and this must be addressed by the new ENP policy. Three countries in the EaP region have stated their wish to become members of the EU, whereas the other three, for many different reasons, have chosen very different paths. Moreover, support for reforms and for the EU as a partner varies a lot in EaP countries. The three countries which have chosen the association track with the EU have completely different needs to the other three. Moreover, before Vilnius, the entire ENP policy was very much based on the philosophy of enlargement, which in turn was based on the assumption that the EU was irresistible and attractive. However, in the post-Vilnius reality, “the end of history” paradigm has been pushed back by new security concerns. Based on those considerations, fundamental questions have been asked in the ENP review document about the future levels and instruments of cooperation.

This brings us back to the old dichotomy between values and interests. In the attempt to find a new balance in the neighbourhood policy between the two, a clear danger emerges that the value-based approach will suffer and that the EU’s political commitment towards these countries will be weakened. In order to avoid that, it is very important that the EU does not do anything to lower the level of ambitions of those EaP countries that want a deeper integration with the EU. The Vilnius declaration from 2013 spoke of the possibility of deeper economic integration and this should be elaborated on further. It would be detrimental to the EU’s interests to lower those ambitions, whatever the reasons that might seem to argue otherwise – either the fear of further provoking Russia or a general enlargement fatigue. Estonia, because of its own experience, is most likely to remain one of the member states that pursues a more ambitious track with regard to EaP countries.

Another danger is the possible departure from the incentive-based approach, the more-for-more principle that was stated as the main guideline for the ENP in the 2011 review. Abandoning this principle would mean the EU’s ability to stick to the conditionality principle would be reduced, and conditionality is a very important tool in pushing forward reform in associated states. Therefore, it is very important to stay true to the more-for-more principle, so that it can be applied both in terms of political and financial support to those countries that choose further integration with the EU. Again, coming back to the Estonian experience – change is possible, but each country needs to be committed and motivated. For this to happen, the ENP toolbox should be used as efficiently as possible.  

For those EaP countries that for various reasons have chosen a different path, it is their sovereign right to choose the precise level of cooperation they wish to take in their relations with the EU. For the EU, however, even if this cooperation is limited only to some specific sectors, it is still important to streamline the value-based approach. An old mantra – values are our interests – very much applies here. To take one example – in the field of e-governance, in which Estonia is clearly one of the leading countries in the region, developing only ICT infrastructure without paying attention to e-participation, e-democracy, and transparency would mean the effect on society would be very limited.

In conclusion, a lack of ambition in EaP policy would be detrimental to the EU’s as well as Estonia’s interests, because it would demotivate the most ambitious partners and risk depriving the EU of the leverage to demand real results on the reform track. In Riga, it is important to reaffirm the EU’s commitment towards the EaP countries. Estonia can be expected to do its part during its EU presidency in 2018 in promoting the reform process in EaP countries. Before then, of course, many variables may influence the situation in our fast-paced world. These include the unpredictable behaviour of Russia towards Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova, both in terms of direct security threats and in terms of sabotaging the reform process by different means; the EU’s ability to stand united in its foreign policy decisions; the Brexit-loaded United Kingdom EU presidency during the second half of 2017, right before the Estonian one; and most importantly, the actual achievements by the EaP countries themselves in reforming their societies and economies.

 Marge Mardisalu-Kahar is director of the Estonian Centre for Eastern Partnership.

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