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Explainer: What Exactly Is An EU Association Agreement?

EU Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighborhood Policy Stefan Fuele speaks onstage during a visit to Chisinau, Moldova in May.
EU Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighborhood Policy Stefan Fuele speaks onstage during a visit to Chisinau, Moldova in May.
Ukraine may or may not sign one. Georgia and Moldova are due to initial theirs. But what exactly are these Association Agreements with the European Union that are causing such a ruckus in the run-up to the EU's Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius?

What exactly is an Association Agreement?

An Association Agreement is the EU's main instrument to bring the countries in the Eastern Partnership closer to EU standards and norms. It comprises four general chapters: Common Foreign and Security Policy; Justice and Home Affairs; the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA); and a fourth chapter covering a range of issues including the environment, science, transportation, and education.

The difference between the association agreements Eastern Partnership countries are negotiating and others that the EU has struck with third countries is the DCFTA. In signing this, Eastern Partnership members will be committing themselves to adopting specific pieces of EU legislation in trade, consumer protection, and environmental regulation. Countries that sign a DCFTA must adopt some 350 EU laws within a ten-year timeframe.

Signatories of a DCFTA will also have access to the EU's 500 million consumers and a market with a combined economy of 12.9 trillion euros. By way of comparison, the rival Russian-led union Customs Union has just 170 million consumers and a combined economy of 1.4 trillion euros.

Once signed, how soon does it take for an Association Agreement come into force?

The plan for the Eastern Partnership summit has been for Ukraine to sign its agreement, although this is far from certain, and for Georgia and Moldova to initial theirs. After an Eastern Partnership country signs its Association Agreement, it must be ratified by the parliaments of all EU member states, a process that can take several years. In the interim, there would be a provisional application of parts of the agreement, such as trade, once an Eastern Partnership signatory ratifies the agreement and the European Parliament has given its assent. In the event of Ukraine signing an agreement, this could be as early as March 2014.

What happens if Ukraine doesn't sign in Vilnius?

If Ukraine does not sign its agreement in Vilnius, they could theoretically sign it in the future at and any EU ministerial meeting. But in practice, failure to sign in Vilnius could stall Kyiv's move toward Europe -- potentially for a long time. Former Polish President and EU envoy to Ukraine Aleksander Kwasniewski told journalists on November 14 that failure to sign in Vilnius could mean "the postponing of the agreement for an indefinite number of years."

What is the timetable for Georgia and Moldova?

Moldova and Georgia finished their negotiations in June and July, respectively, and there has been some “legal scrubbing” by lawyers and linguists in the months since. After they initialize their agreements in Vilnius, the goal is for Tbilisi and Chisinau to sign by September 2014 at the latest and a provisional application by the start of 2015.

What issues and controversies came up as Eastern Partnership members' negotiated their Association Agreements?

Ukraine focused a lot of attention on getting an EU membership perspective -- a commitment to eventual membership -- in its preamble. This would have been difficult to get under the best of circumstances, but in the midst of an economic crisis it was practically impossible.

Georgia focused a lot on the issue of its territorial integrity due to its pro-Russia separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, seeking language in the issue throughout the text. Some such language got into the text, but less than Tbilisi had sought.

The only controversies involving Moldova were Chisinau's desire for a visa-liberalization action plan and the EU's push to ensure nondiscrimination in the workplace.

For both Moldova and Georgia it was also difficult to craft language for the application of the agreement in the breakaway regions -- Transdniester in Moldova's case, Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia's. In all three breakaway regions, the trade part of the Association Agreement is applicable insofar as local companies operate according to European standards.

How long is the wait from a signing of an Association Agreement to becoming an EU member state?

The first thing to remember is that the Association Agreements on offer for the Eastern Partners do not include a path to EU membership -- nor do they explicitly exclude one. So the deal is not as sweet as those offered to the countries in the Western Balkans, which received paths to membership, but it offers a whole lot more than Association Agreements with Morocco and Tunisia, which excluded eventual membership. It took Croatia 12 years from signing a stabilization and association agreement with Brussels to joining the club. Turkey signed its association back in 1962 and is still waiting.

What is the status for Armenia, Azerbaijan and Belarus?

For Azerbaijan there will be at least one more year of negotiations on its association agreement without the DCFTA part since Baku yet isn't a member of the WTO. Armenia backed away from the association agreement earlier this year, opting instead for Russia's Customs Union. This means that nothing will be signed in Vilnius apart from a potential political declaration emphasizing the mutual political will to deepen cooperation in all areas. For Belarus, which already is a member of the Customs Union, the most ambitious hope is to find a new legal ground for its relation with the EU as an old EU-Soviet Union agreement form the basis of its interaction with Brussels today.
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    Rikard Jozwiak

    Rikard Jozwiak is the Europe editor for RFE/RL in Prague, focusing on coverage of the European Union and NATO. He previously worked as RFE/RL’s Brussels correspondent, covering numerous international summits, European elections, and international court rulings. He has reported from most European capitals, as well as Central Asia.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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