The Eastern Partnership: Time to Pull the Plug on an Idea Whose Moment Never Came

March 20, 2013
James George Jatras
Deputy Director, AIU

The recent collapse of the Moldovan government and the call from a prominent European publication to withdraw support for Chișinău due to corruption, misuse of EU funds, and human rights failures point to a conclusion that should have been reached some time ago: that the conceptual flaws in the European Union’s Eastern Partnership (EaP) – which made it questionable to start with – have finally reached the point of unsustainability. Both for the sake of the EU and its hard-pressed taxpayers, and of the “partner” countries, principally Ukraine and Moldova, it’s time to put an end to the Eastern Partnership.

From “rule of law” frontrunner to “one of the most corrupt” countries in Europe

Just a few short months ago Moldova led the admittedly thin field among EaP partner countries for signing an Association Agreement with the EU, ironically based largely on its perceived strength as a leader on anti-corruption and legal reforms to bring Chișinău’s rule of law practices into ostensible line with EU standards. That image was badly battered by the December 2012 “Huntgate” shooting scandal and the charges and countercharges between former coalition partners in the former pro-western “Alliance for European Integration” (AIE), which collapsed on March 5.

Now, from The Parliament magazine, a Brussels-based publication carrying news and analysis of the key issues and debates within the EU institutions, a report “EU Urged to Rethink Funding for ‘Corrupt’ Moldova” not only finishes off whatever was left of Chișinău’s tattered image but of EaP’s overall approach to the EU’s eastern neighbors. Notably at issue is use of the funds that the EU has allocated for assistance to the EaP countries: originally in 2009 € 600 million, increased during 2010-2013 to € 1.9 billion. According to the report, the biggest beneficiary of EaP funding is Ukraine, with Moldova next, receiving some € 482 million.

As detailed in the report, the Eastern Partnership Community, a Warsaw-based independent think tank which specializes in the region, has raised concerns about the possible misuse of EU funds. A spokesperson for the think tank is quoted saying, “The EU is devoting considerable sums to Moldova for very little return in terms of progress in the country’s reform process. It begs the question: Why is the EU throwing money like this at a black hole of corruption, when there is so much to do in the EU's own member states?”

The report further addresses the destabilizing impact of corruption on Moldova’s financial institutions and concerns raised by the Association for Participatory Democracy, a public nongovernmental Moldovan organization, regarding the country’s “troubling” human rights record, especially in the field of fighting organized crime and human trafficking. With one of central Europe’s highest rates of children living in institutionalized care, often totally dependent on adult assistance, Moldova is a hot spot for vulnerable children who become trafficking victims. A recent OSCE report stressed the urgent need for Moldova to enhance prevention and enforcement efforts.

The EaP was misconceived from the start, –

The most recent criticism directed toward Moldova should be seen less as a verdict on that country – which like Ukraine or any other country, has its share of problems – than on the conceptual flaws of the EaP itself. Put another way, what was it about the EaP and its approach to the EU’s eastern neighbors, in which Moldova’s glaring weaknesses could be passed off for so long as “strengths” and qualifications for “European integration”?

To start with, the entire concept of “European integration” was already misleading, as actual membership in the EU was never on the table as part of the EaP process. As noted in a paper published by the Eastern Partnership Community1 in 2012, “explicit promises of EU membership were not made, to the dismay of some partners (Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia).” Instead, “it’s not completely unfair to describe the EU position as keeping the eastern partners at arm’s length, close enough to the EU to avoid them drifting away from Europe, but sufficiently distant that they do not become members of the EU.” Put less diplomatically, the EaP’s policy could be termed as one of “the dog in the manger” (собака на сене, собака на сіні), allowing the EU to keep the eastern “partners” dangling perpetually in petitioner status while obstructing their ties with each other and, in particular, with Russia.

The EaP’s ambivalence of purpose is further evident in the fact that it was never a project to which all of the EU’s members were fully committed but was always the pet project of Sweden and (especially) of Poland, for whom the eastern partners – and Ukraine in particular – were a “strategic” backyard. Even Romania has been supportive of the EaP only insofar as it advances its own goals regarding Moldova, while giving priority to other instruments for the same purpose, such as the Organization of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation. (Likewise, the EaP’s parallel initiative for North Africa and the Middle East, the “Union for the Mediterranean,” reflects the priorities of Spain, France, and Italy.) To an extent, EaP can be seen as an analogue to the similarly incoherent GUAM (Georgia-Ukraine-Azerbaijan-Moldova), a U.S.-backed grouping with a vague security mission, valuable only to thwart Russia.

– and now has become a caricature of itself

It’s not surprising, then, that EaP has mostly engaged in what bureaucracies (and especially EU bureaucracies) seem to do best: mouthing platitudes and throwing money around. Instead of movement toward EU membership, the EaP has specialized in promoting a “partnership of equals sharing common values,” in order to “accelerate political association and deepen economic integration,” through three “objectives”: (1) to “forge new, deeper contractual relations between the EU and partner countries”; (2) to “support the mobility of citizens and visa liberalization in a well managed and secure environment”; and (3) to “enhance sector cooperation.”2 With the exception of visa liberalization (so, what’s holding them up?), no normal person reading EaP documents can have any idea what any of this is supposed to mean. As quoted in the Eastern Partnership Community paper cited above, “Russia makes you an offer you can’t refuse, while the EU makes you an offer you can’t understand.”

Despite the EU’s financial woes, throwing money around doesn’t seem to be problem for the EaP. Indeed, there appears to be an inverse relationship between the EaP’s meager achievements and the production of propaganda lauding them. For example, EastBook, which is funded by the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy, offers a range of material, from a discussion by European leaders on the topic “The EaP Four Years On: Success or Failure?” (they’re not sure themselves), to a pressing examination in the area of common European values, “Is Sexism among Homosexuals in CIS Countries A Problem?” (evidently, domestic violence between lesbian partners remains “under the double yoke of sexism – from the homophobic public as well as from their own, or tolerant to homosexuality, compatriots.”)

Similarly, something called the EU Neighborhood Info Centre, managed by Cypriot and Italian PR firms pursuant to an award by the European Commission, churns out material for both the EaP (“EuroEAST”) and the Union for the Mediterranean (“EuroMED”). Proudly publicized under the banal theme “Neighbours Connect,” EuroEAST offers perhaps the worst animated cartoon ever made, “The Scarecrow,” which literally has to be seen to be believed. (In point of comparison, the sister EuroMed materials are no better. One article cheers that post-Gaddafi “Libyan civil society organisations have been quick in their actions to repair the democratic damage that has been wrought. So far, over 300 organisations have registered as civil society organisations and are pursuing training programmes in order to contribute to the country’s nation-building process and to sustain its transition to a democratic state. The EU has responded rapidly to support the Libyan people.” EuroMED evidently finds less newsworthy the return to Benghazi of the al-Qaeda-linked Ansar al-Sharia with the blessing of the NATO-installed regime.)

When an initiative has reached an unbridgeable gulf between reality and propaganda – a gulf exemplified by Soviet claims of the achievements of “real socialism” during the era of Brezhnev stagnation – it’s time to call it quits. The EaP, having become a caricature of itself, has attained those lofty heights.


1. “The Eastern Partnership and the Danish EU Presidency: Caught between Realism and Disillusion,” by Peter Munk Jensen, April 11, 2012.