Ever since the Ukrainian crisis, the Eastern Partnership program of the European Union has been in a state of stagnation and disorientation. The effectiveness and prospects of the program are now a subject of debate.

A demonstrator holds European Union flag during a protest in support of Ukraine's integration with the European Union in the center of of Kiev, November 29, 2013. Photo: AP

With the confrontation in Ukraine showing little or no signs of being resolved anytime soon, it’s worth revisiting the goals and intentions of the original Eastern Partnership program, which led to Ukraine making a fateful choice between Europe and Russia in 2013.

The Eastern Partnership is a manifestation of the European Neighborhood policy declared and formed at the Prague Summit in 2009 for six post-Soviet states: Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan. Since its emergence, the Eastern Partnership program has become a “litmus test” for elaborating a common EU foreign and security policy. As well, the program has sought to find potential actors for carrying out EU foreign policy.

However, what is more important for the EU within the policy of the Eastern Partnership – securing its borders and creating a predictable buffer zone by forming a “circle of friends” or expanding its influence in the region by economic agreements and extending European standards? Or was the European Union only guided by considerations of peace and democracy promotion?

That is a tricky question. For example, if one tries to create a buffer zone, one should pursue the neutrality of all participants. However, the “Europeanization” logic of the project implies making Eastern partners more pro-EU, not neutral.

No matter what, none of those possible objectives have been reached in a proper way. Even the diffusion of EU influence in the region, which arose within “the struggle for the post-Soviet space,” cannot guarantee that loyal states will be really "europeanized" more than just at the level of official rhetoric or official foreign policy guidelines. Significant problems within Ukraine and Moldova (which, together with Georgia, have been most active in implementing their “European choice”) is further proof that the Eastern Partnership did not resolve the main problems and, what is more, created new ones.

Ukrainian detonator

Attempts to transform Ukraine eventually aggravated the long-lasting internal conflicts within Ukrainian society and subsequently led to the armed clashes that are closely connected with the internal division of the Ukrainian people into pro-Western (pro-EU) and pro-Russian proponents.

From this perspective, the European Union's actions were among the factors contributing to the internal cleavages in Ukraine. These actions certainly did not add any prestige to the public perception of the European project, which claims to be unique in its peaceful nature. In short, the EU claims to turn down the “hard power” factor in its internal and external relations and considers win-win cooperation to be the substance of its foreign policy.

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In fact, the competition of two projects (European vs. Eurasian integration) and two foreign policy vectors in the Ukrainian political and social discourse contributed to the split of the state from the inside. The two sides inside Ukraine rejected arguments of their opponents as unworthy of any discussion.

Pressure to decide on a final choice from the initiators of two rival integration projects pushed Ukraine into a deep crisis. The dialogue and a diplomacy track was denied. All in all, after the events of Maidan, Ukraine has officially re-declared its “European choice” of development and foreign policy.

But what is “the European choice” of Ukraine? The Eastern Partnership project does not imply prospects for entry into the EU. Moreover, it is designed for neighbors that are not going to become EU members in the foreseeable future. It just implies adaptation to the European rules of the game and standards in economy and legislation with necessary financial, technical and expert support of the EU.

After the beginning of the Ukrainian crisis and the emergence of new turbulence and uncertainty in international relations, the Eastern Partnership program is up in the air. Of course, officially, the EU declares its urgency and the need for its continuation. But after the Vilnius Eastern Partnership summit in 2013 and the Riga summit in 2015, which reminded many of some kind of EU revanchist appeal for Ukraine, nothing crucial has happened within the Eastern Partnership program. But new obstacles keep on appearing and, as a result, the crisis has become more noticeable.

Indicators of the Eastern Partnership crisis

The initiators of the Eastern Partnership were the ministers for foreign affairs of Sweden and Poland at that time – Carl Bildt and Radoslaw Sikorski. Their ideas and expectations shaped and determined the substance of the policy of the Eastern Partnership. But its “founding fathers” have left the scene of European affairs and because of that, as Romanian expert Armand Goşu said already in October 2014, “The project was on the verge of collapse.” But it was only the beginning.

The Eastern Partnership demonstrated the low effectiveness of its instruments and little progress in the countries-recipients. Now, in the time of new crises, when the EU has to switch to other priorities and rethink its financial policy in the post-Soviet space, it seems that the Eastern Partnership is doomed to stagnate.

What results has the current European Partnership policy actually shown?

First of all, new foreign policy imbalances have appeared within the EU. Numerous internal crises and problems (migration crisis, euro-zone crisis, Brexit) are now occupying the EU’s attention. At the same time, there is an ideological split between the "Old" and "New" Europe on Eastern partnership issues. As a result "the Old Europe" (except Germany) distances itself from the Eastern Partnership policy because of other priorities while the Central and Eastern European member-states cannot go it alone.

Secondly, a real inefficiency of the Eastern Partnership instruments has been demonstrated. For example, the partnership does not provide guarantees of entering the EU and, as a result, the participants lose their motivation. Moreover, the peculiarities of partners are not taken into consideration, which is why the project's policy sometimes looks clumsy.

The Association Agreement as the main instrument of the Eastern Partnership was only signed with Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova. De facto, then, two partners are excluded from its effects since Armenia and Belarus are members of the Eurasian Economic Union. Azerbaijan prefers an individual approach to relations with the EU and does not consider such an agreement to be advantageous enough taking into account the necessity to have good and stable relations with Russia.

The cost structure of the Eastern Partnership has also ballooned, as numerous costs that have hardly been approved now mount. Countries have received about 3 billion euros since the start of the program, and that’s just the start. It implies financing programs of political and economic governance standardization in the EU manner.

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Yet, as results of work with the elites of the most EU-oriented partners (particularly, Ukraine and Moldova) show, the Eastern Partnership program is not adjusted to the challenges of the post-Soviet space. And that does not even take into account Azerbaijan, where the EU criticizes the human rights situation within the country.

There is potential for new crises on the basis of self-identification to arise. Clearly, there is a lack of ability for the EU to manage them. It is clearly illustrated by the Ukrainian case: the deep internal split of the Ukrainian state on foreign policy issues, as well as the failure of achieving program goals (despite the fact of signing the Association Agreement) - both in the context of democratic and economic reforms and in the security dimension. On the contrary, a new seat of war and disorders has emerged in Europe.

The ineffectiveness of the Eastern Partnership clearly shows that it strongly needs revision if the EU really cares about its safe neighborhood and an effective, balanced and moderate foreign policy based not on historical injuries and fears but on rational calculations and respect for others’ choice.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.