Ahead of the 5th Eastern Partnership Summit in Brussels, the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum (EaP CSF) together with the European Endowment for Democracy (EED), Open Society European Policy Institute, Slovak Foreign Policy Association and Think Visegrad Platform organised a special pre-Summit event “Quo Vadis Eastern Partnership? A Retrospective look into The Future”.
The discussions at the conference were aimed at both critically assessing the Eastern Partnership’s achievements and real changes on the ground to date, and offering recommendations for adjusting the EU’s policy to address emerging challenges.
In his opening speech, EED Executive director Jerzy Pomianowski stressed that the EaP Summit provides a very important forum for a high-level discussion, however the actual implementation of reforms is happening every day in the region. Linas Linkevičius, Lithuanian Minister of Foreign Affairs was invited to deliver a keynote speech.
“Five out of the six EaP countries have frozen conflicts on their territories because of their European choice. The EU should therefore defend the common values shared by both sides and step up its engagement in the region. Today’s situation is more than a “geopolitical game”; it is a battle for the hearts and minds of citizens. We need to show resilience and active stance on Russian propaganda.”
Natalia Yerashevich, Director of the Secretariat, Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum, delivered opening remarks, joined by Zuzana Stuchlíková, Director of Brussels Office, EUROPEUM Institute for European Policy.
“We can clearly see the benefits of regional cooperation on the level of civil society working together on regional challenges, developing consolidated positions, and supporting each other in difficult times. The Eastern partners are often seen in the EU as a source of trouble and instability. In reality the Eastern Partnership is a part of the solution for some of the challenges the EU is currently facing.”
The first panel discussion moderated by Iskra Kirova, Senior Policy Analyst at Open Society European Policy Institute, assessed the performance of the Eastern Partnership policy related to the democratisation in the region and tackling major issues hindering the economic approximation towards the EU.
“EU has a chance and moral obligation to be a serious stakeholder for the domestic reforms in Ukraine. It has the potential to streamline the situation in the right direction by sending clear messages to the government.”
“71% of Georgia’s population are supporting EU integration however there is less EU leverage on the government since the visa free regime was introduced. Georgia’s position as a frontrunner is a double-edged sword – civil society cannot criticise the government too much.”
“Moldova used to be the ‘best student in class’, with the largest amount of aid per capita received from the EU. However, all the recent controversial laws – electoral law reform, CSO law, media law – show that there should be more conditionality on funding. As for Belarus, so far civil society and media are de facto allowed to operate, however without legal guarantees we cannot speak about any genuine liberalisation.”
“In Armenia we have seen a sociological shift from the support for the Eurasian Economic Union to the support for the EU. Now at the CEPA stage there are some guarantees from possible future retreat. Benchmarks are clearer and the role of the civil society is recognised. However, the multi-speed approach in the Eastern Partnership also means a multi-distance and fragmented EaP.”
“Human rights and democracy issues should not be raised just from Summit to Summit – they have to be a priority in the overall approach.”
All the panellists raised the issue of incentives – they should be more attractive and more credible, combined with stricter conditionality. The EU has to focus more on legitimacy, rather than geopolitics, since society’s expectations are often different from those of the governments. A clearer vision is needed both in Brussels and the EaP capitals on what comes after the visa liberalisation process and what new leverages can be used.
The experts of the second panel, moderated by Adam Balcer from Think Visegrad platform, analysed where the Eastern Partnership is heading and presented their forecast and recommendations for the next steps.
Diana Jablonska, Deputy Head of Unit from DG NEAR, highlighted that the expectations from the Eastern Partnership Summit in Brussels were very high, especially on the strategic partnership with civil society. Alexander Duleba, Director of the Research Centre at the Slovak Foreign Policy Association, discussed the differences between the EU harmonisation for the EEA countries, including Norway, and approximation for Ukraine and other AA/DCFTA countries. He also reiterated that integration and partnership should include having an influence on the legislation, not only absorbing and implementing it.
“We need to think about the local communities and fighting poverty. Implementing reforms should lead to prosperity if we want people to believe in Europeanisation.”
“East StratCom Task Force is doing an amazingly great job with resources and manpower they have at their disposal. But it is not a garage-based start-up – it is an EEAS tool. It needs more support and resources.”
Zsuzsanna Vegh, Researcher at Europa-Universität Viadrina, underlined the importance of addressing the local and rural communities in EaP countries, to ensure that the process of integration with the EU leads to a sustainable change.
In her concluding remarks, Miriam Lexmann, EU Regional Programme Director at International Republican Institute, concluded that politicians need to engage more with citizens and stop talking down to them.
“Partnership means that the two parts are equal, there should be a dialogue. Support to democratic political parties, genuine civil society, SMEs and disadvantaged citizens should be at the core of Eastern Partnership policy making.”