This left a large field of uncertainties, until president Biden stepped, as did NATO.
For all its shortages, it was still possible to present the meeting of the European Council as a showcase of unity. It cannot be said about the Eastern Partnership’s summit, which exposed its artificiality and limits. It was adopted in 2009 to deepen relations between Brussels and 6 Eastern partners (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine). They were already covered by the EU Neighbourhood Policy adopted in 2004, as an attempt by southern EU members to rebalance the attention, and interests, of EU members between the Eastern and the Mediterranean countries. But the six were all former Soviet republics that Moscow was pushing into deeper cooperation with the CIS regional institutions.
It aimed to strengthen and deepen the political and economic relations between the EU, its Member States and the partner countries, through a combination of bilateral and multilateral tracks. The input had come from Poland, the Baltic states and Sweden keen to provide a non-Russian anchor to those 6 “partners”. Inevitably, the initiative has been received in Moscow as a hostile gesture, driven by revanchist new EU members and adopted for lack of global vision from old members still besotted with the Western “victory” on the Cold car. As the partnership extended to the security of EU Eastern borders, the clash with Russia was inevitable and the specific role of the Eastern Partnership has been lost among other EU tools dealing with international relations.
From the start, the Partnership was politically weakened by the divergent expectations of the partners. EU wanted to consolidate the stability of its borders by offering a very large spectrum of aide and cooperation for building new democratic liberal societies – and later on an alternative model to that of Vladimir Putin. But for Brussels it was “everything short of membership”. While for the partners, especially Ukraine and Georgia, it was understood as a step into a new process of adhesion. Their illusions were fed by visiting leaders, often from former communist or ex-soviet countries, making extravagant promises that EU officials feared to contradict in the name of the slogan “don’t let Putin divide us”. Inevitably, it led to disappointment and even bitterness.
Today, EU seems to have integrated the message that, despite being all former Soviet, they have different pasts, regional interests, and politico-economic developments. Hence the formula of a “Trio” that emerged under the EU Slovenian presidency, separating the 3 countries of the South Caucasus and those on the European continent. But the Trio has been transformed into a Duo when, in June, president Lukashenko suspended his country’s participation.
The Partnership was mostly efficient in term of economic and trade developments. The Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) agreements with Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova still offer a path of reform, mobility, and increased normative convergence with the EU. But its successes got lost because of the technicalities, so complex that even political leaders cannot master it, even less to explain to the population. For the later, the conditionality imposed by EU has been seen as a cause, not a solution, of many national difficulties.
While the partnership has been offering improved economic and political ties in return for reforms, the population was kept unaware of its benefits. Citizens believe that the fight against corruption is serving financial interests (national or foreign) and that reforms mean loss of jobs and reduced public services.
Militarily, the geographical location of the 6 Eastern partners question the story that it is all about economic and political reforms, especially since 2014 and the Russian adventure in Ukraine. But the recent escalation at the border with one of the partner, Ukraine, involving Russia, gave a new dimension to the claim that EU will defend the European borders.
Of course, the EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell stated in 2020 that “the Eastern Partnership is at the heart of EU foreign policy”. But, for its Eastern members, talking defence means NATO and Washington.
At the moment, the year 2021 seems to end with the promise of president Biden to start diplomatic talks with Moscow in January, probably not before Orthodox Christmas. Participation should be opened to other organisations, such as the OSCE, alongside Washington and Russia. There are for the moment no mention of EU. In the meantime, Brussels will have to deal with 2 urgent questions affecting the stability of the continent – and its own credibility.
One concerns the suggestion that reinforced Ukrainian armed forces could be a component, of the EU defence plans.
The second concerns EU capacity to escape direct involvement in the Ukrainian presidential campaign. It managed to do so up to now, despite unease about the evolution of president Zelensky. But now this neutrality is challenged by the appeal of ex-president Poroshenko against his prosecution for an alleged confusion of interests during his mandate. He has not been shy himself of using the judiciary for the political gains, but he calling from Poland which is was visiting, and promised to come back to Ukraine in January.