Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum

Europe’s neglected east: forging partnership

The European Union has an uncertain relationship with the ex-Soviet states to its east.  A meeting in Poznan under the auspices of the union’s “eastern partnership” is a timely moment to examine what Europe needs to do to revivify its engagement, says Gevorg Ger-Gabrielyan.

The European Union’s Eastern Partnership programme is a diplomatic initiative that seeks to improve relations with, and consolidate democracy and good governance in, six states in its eastern neighbourhood that once belonged to the Soviet Union: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine.

The programme’s Civil Society Forum is meeting in Poznan on 28 November - 1 December 2011 - an appropriate location, both because Poland currently (from July-December 2011) holds the presidency of the European Union and because the European Partnership (EaP) was a joint initiative of Poland and Sweden.

This gathering is of great importance to many people working to advance democracy and civil society in these six states. But its relevance goes wider, and this article - written by a citizen of Armenia - suggests that the states and concerned citizens of the European Union also need to take more account of the world to the union’s east and far southeast. To this end, the article outlines the context of the Poznan meeting and makes some substantive proposals about how the EaP might develop constructively in the period ahead.

The lost momentum

The Europeans have offered a series of plans to the ex-Soviet states: the Partnership and Cooperation Agreements (PCA), which became incorporated in the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP), and then in the more coherent notion of the Eastern Partnership (EaP). In its various guises, the European approach has remained the only geopolitical option for the region apart from what Russia itself can propose.

The fact that the Eastern Partnership is the only strategic alternative may not be so obvious, in that from the European Union’s standpoint it is tempting to see the EaP states as merely the EU’s eastern neighbours. But they are more than this: they are - and will be more so after the Balkans states enter the union - the “soft underbelly” of the EU. The union will have to learn (similar to Russia) that it needs to make more strategically of the EaP than it has hitherto. If Russia learns faster and makes effective moves, the situation will become even more complex.

The EU needs to accelerate the pace. It took two stages of enlargement (2004 and 2007) for the union - specifically, Poland and Sweden - to come up with the idea of the EaP. The Russia-Georgia war of 2008 was another factor in its creation. If Europe waits for the second stage of Russia’s comeback - and marks time by arguing that the Balkans should first be absorbed - it may be shocked by the turn of events.

There is a problem here, for the EaP is not the darling of the entire EU. It was principally an interest of northern European states, though not even among their main priorities. By contrast, “Latin” Europe (particularly France) - which traditionally regards Russia as an alternative pole of its diplomacy - was cautious about encouraging a wholesale shift of orientation by the EaP states from Russia to the EU.

The five messages

EU could send five messages to signal its support for the EaP that might encourage the EaP to take the union more seriously:

* France and Germany, and other key EU players - particularly Italy and Britain - share a united interest vis-à-vis the EaP

* The EaP is a very specific strategic focus of EU for a long time; it is not going to be over, forgotten or withdrawn any time soon; the EU’s attention will not be diverted inwards or elsewhere because of the union’s various crises

* The newer EU members, thanks to their Soviet-bloc experience, have a special role to play in EU-EaP relations; but they should show their best rather than their worst. Here, the capacity of Germany (incorporating former East Germany) to act as a facilitator is vital

* The standards for ethical behavior at the EU and then the EaP level are set by the Scandinavian states. For instance, if a corruption case is found involving the EU and EaP, the Scandinavians are good candidates to play a lead role in investigation and adjudication

* The EU should avoid transmitting to the EaP any indication that it is not serious about itself and its own future - and to that end the union must resolve its internal problems decisively by bringing politics and economics into institutional alignment.

The seven recommendations

In order to address these issues, I would make five recommendations:

* the EU should continue to manage and control the CSF structures, based on clear and transparent criteria, while leaving freedom for ideas to flourish and for participation to enrich the discourse

* This could be done by introducing a serious annual civil-society audit for the EaP, similar to the global corruption, human rights and freedom of expression audits that other institutions operate. This would be need to be deeper than the existing Civil Society Index (which is useful, but does not distinguish the fake civil society from the real one)

* After these two recommendations are implemented, democracy assistance should be delivered only to states fully under the supervising eye of civil society

* Civil society should be supported independently of connections with state structures, with the EU Civil Society Facility and other funding tools tailored to that need. Civil society should undergo a very tough periodic audit - and only those who pass that audit with high marks should be validated or awarded a grant

* The EU should attempt to conceive the relationship between all the existing states in the regionas a single geopolitical unit, at least in aspiration. To make this a functional reality will obviously be difficult, but even to consider them in terms of their common interests and problems would be a step forward in understanding what kind of policies could lead to real improvement across the many borders. This might unlock further possibilities for joint agendas on the part of various EU/EaP configurations, with the ultimate aim of building a joint geopolitical identity of EaP (perhaps on the model of the Baltic states or Visegrad states).

* The building of this geopolitical entity should go hand-in-hand with encouraging civil society network building of EaP states with Russia and Turkey under the auspices of EU, two regional superpowers with whom EU has a special relationship and who play a huge role in EaP region.

* The EU should encourage and support civil society work in the break-away regions: via building civil society networks across the conflict divides, it will be possible to increase the level of stability and preventive structures for conflicts not to deteriorate further, which in turn will create grounds for democratic advance.

Gevorg Ter-Gabrielyan, Eurasia Partnership Foundation Armenia Country Director

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25 November 2011

source of information - openDemocracy

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