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EU's Eastern Partnership Strains To Juggle Interests, Values

  • Ahto Lobjakas

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso (left) and EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner discussing the Eastern Partnership in Brussels on December 3.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso (left) and EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner discussing the Eastern Partnership in Brussels on December 3.

The draft of a document slated for release at an upcoming EU Eastern Partnership summit suggests the bloc is grappling with the task of making the program an ideal fit for all of its prospective partners.

While the European Union will have numerous opportunities to revise the declaration, the result so far is a document that tends to emphasize mutual interests rather than values.

The debate over its wording reflects the inconvenient reality that just two of the six countries slated for the Eastern Partnership have held reasonably democratic elections, and most fall far short of the democratic and rights standards promoted by the EU itself.

The gathering, set to take place in Prague on May 7, will bring together the 27 EU leaders with representatives of prospective partners Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan.

Common Denominators

As EU statements go, critics might well argue that a copy of the draft declaration obtained by RFE/RL is unlikely to rank among the most inspirational of documents.

Coming after weeks of painstaking consultations led by the EU's Czech presidency -- first with its fellow EU member states and then with the six prospective Eastern partners -- the text makes for dry reading.

Its four pages read less like an affirmation of lofty ambition than a summary of the conditions that make closer cooperation unavoidable.

The approach reflects the limitations imposed on the EU by the material at its disposal. Only two of the countries -- Ukraine and Georgia -- have held elections that have been declared essentially free and fair by the OSCE. Azerbaijan, Armenia, Belarus, and Moldova routinely struggle with the most basic standards of freedom and good governance which form the core of the EU's reform drive.

After the Russia-Georgia war in August, the EU appears to have concluded that it is essentially in a zero-sum contest with Moscow for influence over their shared neighborhood. Rather than waiting for reforms, Brussels opted to move ahead and engage governments in the region, with fewer preconditions.

This shift of mindset is on prominent display in the May 7 draft declaration, which starts by stating the Eastern Partnership is "founded on mutual interests and commitments."

Only in the next paragraph are values -- which traditionally have had absolute primacy in the EU lexicon -- introduced.

"The participants of the Prague Summit agree that the Eastern Partnership will be based on commitments to fundamental values, including democracy, the rule of law and the respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms," the draft says.

In practice, of course, none of the Prague participants commit themselves to anything, since summit declarations possess no binding force.

The document does say the EU "supports" political reforms, noting the Eastern Partnership "carries a clear political message about the need to maintain and bolster the course towards reforms."

'Association' And 'Support'

The draft reiterates the EU's basic aim of offering closer political and economic ties to interested parties in the region. It says a rapprochement would advance stability, security, and prosperity in the region.

Predictably, in a nod to the pervasive skepticism toward further expansion among the EU public, the statement dissociates the Eastern Partnership from the EU enlargement process. It says the project will be developed "without prejudice to individual Eastern Partners' aspirations for their future relationship" with the EU.

Ukraine and Georgia, the two countries in the region explicitly seeking EU membership, can take heart, however, from the fact that the draft recognizes all six neighbors as "Eastern European Partners." This could be construed as a tacit admission of their eligibility, as EU treaties say all "European" countries can apply to join the bloc.

The draft summit declaration lists the already familiar elements of the substance of the EU offer -- new "association agreements" with all six countries, the prospect of free trade provided relevant EU legislation is adopted, and "support" for visa liberalization.

This last formulation, authored by Germany, marks a defeat for those countries within the EU advocating giving the six neighbors a clear prospect of visa-free access to the EU.

The summit document delicately skirts the territorial conflicts besetting four of the six partners (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Moldova), noting only that "protracted conflicts impede cooperation activities" and recommending their "earliest peaceful settlement on the basis of norms and principles."

EU member states get their next opportunity to revise the draft statement ahead of the May summit on April 30, when the bloc's ambassadors meet in Brussels to discuss the issue.

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