IN THE SPOTLIGHT
No shortcuts on roadmap from Vilnius to Riga: open and participatory policymaking must take centre-stage
The EaP CSF has reported the results of the monitoring of the implementation of the Eastern Partnership Roadmap to the Vilnius Summit at the Eastern Partnership Platform 1 "Democracy, Good Governance and Stability" taking place in Brussels on 17 October. The period assessed is May 2012 – July 2013. The key message is that for democratic development and economic integration to be sustained, both EU and partner countries must communicate openly and improve engagement of the public.
THE VILNIUS SUMMIT was expected to mark the launch of a new phase of European integration for the majority of the eastern neighbours of the EU, with the initialling or signature of Association Agreements and Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area Agreements between the EU and respectively Armenia, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine. For Azerbaijan, there would also be the signing of an agreement on visa facilitation, while Belarus would remain the outsider, rejecting dialogue on all but the most technical subjects. In the months leading up to the summit, however, the partner countries have been subjected to the negative diplomatic offensive from the Russian Federation – ranging from threats and imposition of trade embargos to calls for them to join the Customs Union of Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan. In the case of Armenia, after the successful conclusion of negotiations on the Association Agreement and DCFTA agreement, on 3 September 2013 President Serzh Sargsyan overturned expectations when he agreed on a visit to Moscow to join the Customs Union. Not only civil society, but also Armenian officials who had worked to conclude the negotiations, were shell-shocked.
The EU’s active diplomacy towards Ukraine has been a welcome, and positive, contrast to the negative diplomacy from Moscow, with its threats of cutting Ukraine off from Russian markets, but in four of the six partner countries there is far from an open and participatory policymaking process – that will be essential to realisation of the ambitions of the Association Agreements. Moreover, the level of secrecy around the negotiations of the agreements – under the guise of diplomacy – has weakened the EU’s case for European integration. An opportunity has been lost for public debate and for generating wide ownership of the European integration process among the citizens of the partner countries. This would not have stopped the pressure from Moscow, but it would have strengthened the hand of those pushing for closer integration with the EU. The monitoring of developments in the partner countries during the period since the launch in May 2012 of the roadmap to the Vilnius summit shows that Georgia and Moldova were the only two partner countries whose policymaking process was considered substantially open and receptive to policy initiatives from civil society and expert stakeholders, with limited receptiveness existing in Ukraine, and the beginning of more openness in Armenia. Despite the permanent participant status accorded to the Civil Society Forum at the intergovernmental panel meetings, civil society has been given a seat in regular trilateral forums - including government, the EU delegations and civil society - only in Georgia, not in the other partner countries, although in Moldova civil society now has an observer attending Cabinet meetings. While substantial initiative on the part of the EU to engage with civil society has been welcomed, efforts have been less effective in fostering dialogue between governments and civil society. Greater impetus from the EU side towards this objective is believed to be necessary by civil society actors in Armenia and Ukraine.
However, the need for inclusive and participatory policymaking seems to have been set aside across the board when it comes to Association Agreements between the EU and the partner countries. The talks and drafting process have been marked by "closed doors" to the general public and largely to civil society on the part of both the partner countries and the EU. This has meant there is a lack of understanding of the importance of the Association Agreements in bringing the partners closer to the values and standards promoted by the European Union and the clear benefits to their countries from closer European integration. In Ukraine, there was in some policy areas more outreach to civil society experts from the Ukrainian government than from the side of the EU, so it seems that the EU's position was more than acquiescence with national governments in keeping the draft agreements secret; in fact, opening the drafts to public debate might have met with no objection from partner governments, and would have clearly given the process and the final agreements stronger legitimacy and ownership in the eyes of the public. An opportunity has been lost to foster greater understanding of the importance and relevance of the content of the Association Agreements, and a perception that European integration is an elite, bureaucratic endeavour; rather than an important project empowering citizens' lives. The findings above are part of a Civil Society Forum monitoring exercise, some preliminary findings from which are set out here, to be followed by reports from each country, and a final report ahead of the Vilnius summit. The monitoring so far shows a number of areas of progress, but also some setbacks, and persistent challenges in the six countries.