Partners for Life: Europe’s Unanswered ‘Eastern Question’

Press release

Stay the course on the Eastern Partnership

Dramatic change may not be on the cards, but the EU can and should shift to a ‘status quo plus’ approach that builds on existing activity.

Next month the Eastern Partnership (EaP) summit convenes for the fifth time. Since its inception in 2008, the EaP has evolved in response to changing circumstances, but it still falls short of a transformative programme that would properly serve both the EU and partnership states.

Moreover, the partnership now finds itself under threat from the twin forces of populism and realism in Europe.

Populists in the Netherlands last year stirred up fears of an influx of Ukrainian migrants and forced a climb-down on the partnership’s conferral of ‘European aspirations’ for Ukraine. While Hungary has now threatened to unpick Ukraine’s Association Agreement with Europe after Ukraine passed a new education law that curtails minority language teaching.

By contrast, realist commentators argue that the transformation is now effectively dead. EaP members are seen as incapable of real reform, and the EU as incapable of providing security for the region. Moreover, many argue that accepting Russia’s ‘sphere of influence’ in the region would reduce conflict and increase stability in the region.

As such there is a move towards downgrading the partnership’s ambition and treating EaP states as independent buffer states rather than as potential future EU members.

This would be a mistake, argues a new report from the European Council on Foreign Relations. Russia needs conflict with the West for domestic purposes, regardless of whether such a conflict is really happening or not. As a result, if Europe waters down its engagement in the east, stability will not ensue.

Instead, Europe should stay the course on the Eastern Partnership. A dramatic reinvention of the policy may not be on the cards, but smarter reforms can still achieve progress without the need for new resources or initiatives.

For example, the EU can focus on the policies that make the most impact on ordinary people’s lives such as making visa-free travel a reality and abolishing roaming charges. It can assist the implementation of already-agreed reforms by installing a ‘payback clause’, to claw back EU funding if targets are not met. And it can help Ukraine achieve energy independence by integrating Ukraine into ENPSOG (gas) and ENTSO (electricity).

It should also pay more attention to language, seeking more positive expressions of solidarity so as to provide reformers in the region with political capital for their efforts. And finally, the EU must be tougher on democratic erosion inside the EU, especially in neighbouring states like Hungary, if its democratisation policies are to have credibility in the east.


Notes to editors

Read the report online: Partners for life: Europe’s unanswered ‘eastern question’
Download the pdf: Partners for life: Europe’s unanswered ‘eastern question’

Report author Andrew Wilson is available for comment. He can be reached at [email protected]

Alternatively contact ECFR’s communications manager Conor Quinn at [email protected] or +44 7413 636 323 

Read the publication online

Read more publications