Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum

Civil society in the Eastern Partnership

The second annual conference of the Civil Society Forum of the Eastern Partnership (EaP) took place in Berlin on 18-19 November, hosted by the German Foreign Office, and with the active participation of Commissioner Stefan Fuele, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, and Czech and Polish state secretaries. About 250 participants gathered together, mainly from EaP states, but also from the EU. The six EaP states were all fully represented by civil society organisations, including Belarus which is not a full participant in the European Neighbourhood Policy. The Forum is now structured with a Steering Committee, and thematic Working Groups, which mirror the four official thematic platforms of the EaP for (1) democracy, (2) economics, (3) energy and (4) people. Each has developed sub-groups on more precise topics such as for visa liberalisation, human rights, energy and environment etc. In addition ‘National Platforms’ have been set up in most states, bringing together around 50 to 100 organisations in each. The Steering Committee had proposed to the German Foreign Office to host the Forum to underline Berlin’s commitment to the EU’s Eastern policy, and was most appreciative that this was accepted, thus bringing its work into direct contact with policy makers. It is also excellent that the third Forum in 2011 will be in Poland, which has been one of the strongest promoters of the Eastern Partnership and will preside the EU Council of ministers in the second half of the year. To organize the Forum in the capitals of the EU member states increases its impact on European policy, which requires support in the governments of the member states.

So this mechanism is up and running. But what does it really do, or what can it be expected to do? 

At the highest level this is meant to be one part of a transformative process, helping the EaP states move beyond the post-communist transition towards convergence on European standards – both for democracy, human rights and the rule of law, as well as more technical matters of economic regulation. In one word Europeanisation’, but without the prospect of EU membership for the time being, notwithstanding the article in the treaty which makes any European democracy eligible to apply for membership – as Stefan Fuele reminded us. Even if the transformation has been making some progress overall, none of the countries is a full-fledged democracy, as the latest local election in Ukraine and parliamentary election in Azerbaijan have shown. 

There have been many studies on the dynamics of this possible Europeanisation, summarised under the words socialisation versus conditionality. The Civil Society Forum is obviously an exercise in socialisation rather than conditionality, since the carrot of accession is not on the table. The process of socialisation is supposed to be between the EaP states and the EU, with the norms and values of the EU as its foundations. Yet the EaP is also an exercise in intra-EaP socialisation. This becomes an interesting point when observing the wide spectrum of political regimes, from the more or less democratic to the authoritarian. By contrast, there is much less difference of opinion between the civil society organisations of these countries, which generally aim at regular European standards of civil liberties. 

For the European Commission in its dealings with the partner states there is still quite a lot of conditionality in the works. This is clearly so in the case of free trade negotiations (or for ‘Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreements’ – DCFTA – to use the official language). The argument goes that the EaP states should adopt big parts of the EU market regulatory acquis, and in the case of Georgia this has even been made a precondition for the opening of free trade negotiations. Here the Commission needs to consider more thoroughly the costs and benefits for the partner states of what it is demanding, remembering the experience of the new member states who would not have been able to adopt much of the acquis without the financial and political incentives of the accession package. A second example is seen in the conditions for scrapping short-term visas. Here Ukraine got all the conditions laid out in an Action Plan adopted at the EU-Ukraine summit on 22 November, amounting to a huge long-term justice and home affairs reform agenda: biometric passports, upgrade of border management, migration management, public order and security, judicial cooperation, fundamental rights within Ukraine. But lacking is the prospect of tangible short-term benefits. In these free trade and visa affairs the conditionality currently pushed by the Commission is certainly heavy. How heavy is best? These are issues properly to be debated at the Civil Society Forum.

The full participation of Belarus in the Civil Society Forum stands in contrast with the sad fiasco of the EURONEST (standing for a parliamentary assembly of the European parliament and its counterparts in the Eastern neighbourhood), which was meant to be the European Parliament’s part in the EaP process. The European Parliament sought to select the individuals who should come from Belarus, a condition that was unsurprisingly refused. Result: the EURONEST has not even begun. Civil society people in Berlin (from Belarus, other EaP states and the EU) felt that the European Parliament has got it badly wrong here, and maybe the issue could be revisited after the forthcoming Belarus elections if these show a modicum of correctness.

Now that the Civil Society Forum is fully institutionalised it now has to move on to the next step, namely to focus on substantive issues more sharply. The vast range of civil society organisations in play makes this no easy task. The Berlin Forum addressed an excessive number of issues and the recommendations of the four working groups were generally lacking in operational precision, and have not yet been brought together as agreed conclusions of the Forum as a whole. The Steering Committee and national coordinators are aware of this, and have to decide how to improve the output. This will require adjustment to the methods of work and uses of the substantial budget that the Forum receives from the Commission (EUR 635,000 in the current year). At present this is entirely spent on the logistics of bringing NGO representatives together, with no funds for the Steering Committee to commission policy oriented papers and no travel expenses for participants from EU countries. Attendance might for example be limited to 200 rather than 250 at the annual meeting, thus releasing resources for the Steering Committee and Working Groups to commission work on selected themes with a view to recommendations for the annual conference.

Some precise recommendations on how to recalibrate the workings of the Civil Society Forum:

  1. In addition to the four thematic working groups there should be an overarching strategy tier to the activity, aiming at policy shaping on top level questions. An overall strengthening the mandate of the EU and EaP participants would facilitate their policy-shaping role, linking the tasks of transition and European cooperation.
  2. Output should consist of (a) monitoring and evaluation each year of a selection of projects and policy topics, (b) a final declaration adopted at the annual conference with policy recommendations, (c) representations to official meetings of the Eastern Partnership. 
  3. The Steering Committee, together with the coordinators of the National Platforms and the four Working Groups, should develop this work during the year, and be entrusted with funds to make this possible.

This Civil Society Forum could be really valuable. But it could also degenerate into just a very large and woolly conference circuit, and a very expensive one. The first Forum in 2009 was very preliminary yet still published a final declaration. This second Forum saw top level political participation in plenary sessions, but at working group and sub-group levels it was often lacking in focus and professional content. The third Forum has to strive to overcome the weaknesses. 

Michael Emerson, participant in the Berlin Civil Society Forum, CEPS, Brussels
Iris Kempe, member of the Steering Committee of the Civil Society Forum, Boell Stiftung, Tbilisi
Andrei Yahorau, member of the Belarus National Platform of the Civil Society Forum, Center for European Transformation, Minsk, and visiting researcher at CEPS

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