Six years ago Poland, along with Sweden, initiated the European Union’s Eastern Partnership (EaP). The project was intended to strengthen the EU’s ties with its eastern neighbours, to advance these eastern partners’ democratic and economic transformation, and to encourage them to cooperate more closely with each other. Warsaw believes that the EaP has been a success, especially in view of the developments that have taken place in the southern neighbourhood. Three countries (Moldova, Ukraine, and Georgia) have signed Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area agreements (DCFTAs) with the EU. Despite many setbacks and challenges, all three are on a path towards modernisation in accordance with European rules and values.
However, Poland’s perception is not completely shared across Europe. Many countries believe that the EU’s expansion to the east formed the root cause of the geopolitical conflict with Russia. This is one of the reasons why, at the Riga summit and on the future of the EaP, Warsaw is focusing on reiterating the progress and commitments that have been made so far, rather than launching new initiatives or articulating far-reaching visions.
The EaP has come a long way since 2008: from a technocratic project aimed at fostering EU member states’ interests in the eastern neighbourhood to an object of hatred in Russian propaganda, a supposed example of the West’s incursion into Moscow’s sphere of vital interests. This unexpected development has set the parameters for Poland’s new approach to its pet project. The EaP is no longer seen simply as a set of tools, more or less efficient, to bring eastern neighbours closer to European standards. Instead, it has also become a highly political issue – the more so since any backtracking on the EU’s commitments, not to mention scrapping the EaP, would suggest that the EU buys into the narrative that its policy of engagement with the post-Soviet republics has gone too far. This interpretation has been clearly rebuffed by Poland. Warsaw contends that the current stand-off between Russia and the EU was caused not by the EaP, but by Russia’s choice to turn against the West, largely because of domestic policy issues (and by Moscow’s refusal to accept democracy in Ukraine). To blame the EU (and the EaP) for this conflict would be a fatal mistake; it would put the EU on the defensive in the propaganda war and it would likely lead to poor policy recommendations.
Instead, Warsaw thinks that the EU needs to “reconfirm its commitments” towards the EU’s eastern neighbours, especially towards those who have already signed DCFTAs. Those agreements should be ratified as quickly as possible by all EU member states, and the Riga summit should send a clear signal that the “European aspirations” of these countries are being taken seriously. The wording of documents that come out of Riga should not contradict what the EU has represented in the past years – and this refers both to the issue of a general openness for new members (as stated in the EU Treaties) and to the question of visa liberalisation, which should be introduced as soon as the partner states meet the necessary technical requirements. Both issues seem to be contentious within the EU. But from the Polish perspective, the measure of success or failure for the Riga summit will be the way that the EU approaches these issues, rather than any spectacular deliverables, which are very unlikely to emerge in any case. In the current circumstances, if the EU were to shy away from openly upholding its policy, it would be devastating for its image and discouraging for the societies in Eastern Europe, where the ongoing adaptation process entails a lot of hardship.
Clearly, the priority of the Eastern Partnership in the coming years should be the swift implementation of the DCFTAs as well as the efficient monitoring of this process. Poland has been sceptical about delaying Ukraine’s DCFTA from entering into force until 2016 and it is opposing any further concessions to Russia on the issue. The question of how to refer to the “neighbours of the neighbours” (or, really, the one big “neighbour of the neighbours”) in the Riga documents remains controversial: Poland is reluctant to give Moscow leverage on the EU’s relations with its eastern neighbours. Economic integration is key, and the growth of trade exchanges between the EU and Georgia and Moldova has been seen as one of the positive developments and, indeed, one of the main examples that the EaP is working. Increased support for the development of small and medium enterprises in EaP partner states (SME Facility) should be one of the concrete contributions that the EU makes to the improvement of economic structures in those countries.
No less importantly, Warsaw believes that the EaP remains an useful instrument for the countries in the east. Sectorial dialogues, regular summits, and other meeting formats should not be underestimated, because they give the political elites of the eastern neighbours an opportunity to socialise with their EU counterparts – and Poland’s experience from its own pre-accession process shows how important that is. And even more reluctant partners seem to acknowledge the positive record of EaP cooperation in the most advanced countries of the region. Armenia, despite its decision to join the Eurasian Economic Union, is ready to negotiate a Partnership and Cooperation Agreement and Belarus wishes to sign an agreement on visa facilitation.
Obviously, the discussion about the future of the EaP cannot be isolated from the larger context of the review of the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP). Poland has showed more interest in the southern neighbourhood in recent years and months (the speech of Polish Foreign Minister Grzegorz Schetyna before parliament in April 2015 represents a good example). However, its perception of the EU’s neighbourhood comes down to principle: there is a substantial difference between the east, where we have European partners with European aspirations, and the south, where this is clearly not the case. Poland’s insistence on keeping up and strengthening the EaP reflects this attitude: the east is qualitatively different (which does not mean more important) from the south, and the EU’s policy instruments need to address this fact. Differentiation, tailor-made policies, flexibility – Poland supports all these key concepts of the ENP review, feeling that they should naturally lead to a stronger and more focused engagement with the most advanced EU partners in the east.
A more strategic approach is required as well, possibly involving a relaxation of the conditionality principle, whose application has failed both in the east and in the south. Action Plans and long lists of detailed commitments served bureaucratic purposes, but had little impact on the ground. However, Poland faces a dilemma here. Poland fears there could be negative consequences if the ENP – and logically also the EaP – were to become more of a foreign (and security) policy tool, in which the European External Action Service (EEAS) rather than the Commission was in the driving seat (although this is not likely to happen under the current ENP review). The Commission has proved over the years to be more sympathetic to Poland’s concerns, and has pursued the mission enshrined in the Treaties with regard to the neighbourhood. On the other hand, the EEAS is perceived as being the domain of the bigger member states and thus is less predictable in terms of the application of commonly agreed EU policies.
With regard to the east (as well as to the south), Poland has no illusions about the fact that stabilisation and prosperity are unlikely to be achieved quickly, nor about the ENP and EaP as the most important tools to reach this goal. The limits of these policies as largely technocratic instruments (which will not change in a meaningful way after the ENP review) are apparent in an environment that is more and more dominated by security and geopolitical challenges which they are not well suited to address. So, as much as the EaP is important for Poland as a flagship project of its diplomacy and an important symbol of EU’s engagement in the increasingly contested post-Soviet region, tackling the most pressing problems (especially in Ukraine) will require solutions going far beyond the EaP (such as high-level diplomacy, substantial economic support, security sector cooperation). But in Riga, the EU needs to confirm that it is ready for this long adventure – which is why a new endorsement of the EaP is essential.
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