Estonian Presidency of the EU Council and the Eastern Partnership

The Estonian Presidency of the EU Council started on July 1, and its programmatic guidelines have already been made abundantly clear both from the official programme and various statements of Estonian officials. An important, and interesting for Latvia, priority is relations with the Eastern Partnership; preparations for the 5th Eastern Partnership Summit taking place on November 24, 2017, are in full swing. Will the Estonian Presidency manage to rejuvenate the Eastern Partnership? This paper offers a forecast, taking into account both Estonian priorities as well as overall processes that take place in the EU.

To start with general trends in the EU, we see that the reviewed Eastern Partnership policy—the review process started at the Riga summit in 2015 and was later solidified by a Joint Communication[1] document as well as the European Global Strategy—has recently been operationalized by describing specific implementation steps. Namely, on December 15, 2016, the EU published the “Joint Staff Working Document: Eastern Partnership – Focusing on key priorities and deliverables”[2] that described targets to be achieved by 2020 as well as interim milestones to be reached by the 2017 Eastern Partnership summit. After receiving comments from EU and partner countries, an updated version of the document was published on June 9, 2017.[3] Thus, the EU has a number of general as well as specific documents providing a framework for the upcoming summit.

Looking at Estonia, it should be mentioned that the Eastern Partnership is and has been the key priority of Estonian foreign policy bilaterally as well as in the context of the EU’s common foreign policy. By supporting the EaP, Estonia has attempted to take a niche among other EU countries[4] and to create a belt of stable and democratic states along the EU external border. The attitude towards the policy in Estonia has traditionally been rather ambitious and optimistic, hoping that it will promote not reforms in all six partner states but also, eventually, their accession to the EU.[5] According to Sven Mikser, Estonian foreign minister, “Estonia would like to keep the ambitious Eastern Partnership in the focus of the EU” also in its EU Council Presidency role and has put it forward as an overall foreign policy priority during the Presidency.[6]

In general, there is harmony between the specific Estonian priorities and the overall EU guidelines for developing relations with the Eastern Partnership. Both reflect the new consensus established after Riga, with greater focus on security and a flexible approach to all six partner countries. Both, however, are somewhat incomplete when it comes to providing the ambitious forward vision that Estonia would like to offer.

Security has become the overarching theme of the Eastern Partnership, with quite explicit geopolitical elements coming into play since the Ukrainian crisis erupted. “Eastern Partnership enables to uphold a fundamental principle of European security order: the right of countries to choose their own future, their own path to development”.[7] Estonia lists the EaP under “a safe and secure Europe” in its presidency programme,[8] and indeed it emerges from various presidency’s documents and announcements that security, and more specifically strengthening the partners’ resilience, is the main raison d’être for the EaP. Strengthening resilience and EU’s strategic communication are the two most visible promises with regard to the partner countries. It is also evidently the case for other EU members. If we compare the June 2017 version of the Joint Staff Working Document with the original December 2016 paper (please see links cited above), we see a focus on stabilization and resilience that has been further strengthened after hearing the EU members’ and partners’ opinions. The 2017 document has a significantly expanded section on security and resilience to security threats (also hybrid ones). Although the document mainly deals with diffuse threats such as illicit firearms trafficking, cybercrime and disaster risk reduction, it also stipulates “participation by at least three Partner Countries in EU’s CSDP [Common Security and Defence Policy] operations” as well as—some of the new points in the 2017 document—“hybrid threat risk assessment piloted in at least one Partner Country” and “reinforc[ing] protection of critical infrastructure”.[9]

Reinforcing the EU’s strategic communications also seems to be part of this trend. “Improv[ing] awareness of EU and EU programmes” was already a major topic in the 2016 document, but the 2017 version expands it further, including points on reaching Russian-speaking audiences, “increased support to independent media and professional journalism in the EaP region” and “reinforced efforts to counter disinformation”.[10] Low EU’s visibility in the partner countries is an unfortunate and well-known fact, and while the EU provides large amounts of aid, the limited assistance from Russia is sometimes believed to be more important by the partner societies. Thus, reinforcing strategic communications is an important and logical way to strengthen the EU’s position in the neighbourhood.

Political cooperation with the EaP countries has already been upgraded at the Riga Summit, introducing the principle of differentiation: instead of expecting all six partners to have the same goals and aspirations, the EU has recognized that Belarus, Armenia and Azerbaijan will not work towards the same Association Agreements with the EU as Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine have, and need separate arrangements instead. The Estonian presidency will proceed with this approach. The overall EU plans for the Brussels summit include “progress on the finalisation of the new bilateral cooperation agreement with Armenia; progress in negotiations for a new bilateral cooperation agreement with Azerbaijan; [as well as] continued critical engagement with Belarus steered by the newly created EU-Belarus Co-ordination Group”.[11] In fact, it may be possible that a Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement (CEPA) with Armenia will be signed at the Brussels summit in November.[12] Estonian Presidency programme supports developing relations with the three non-DCFTA states; differentiation itself is an absolutely logical step and the work in progress must be continued, although it does not seem that Estonia will bring much novelty to it.

On the question of enlargement, Estonia still believes that it should be an option for qualifying countries,[13] but it is not explicitly linked to the EaP countries. Taking into account the overall negative EU’s attitude to enlargement in the nearest years, we cannot expect any progress in this area in any case.

“Economic development and market opportunities” are one of the EU’s overall priorities regarding the Eastern Partnership,[14] and the June 2017 Joint Staff Working Document offers several measures in this regard. Interestingly, while the December 2016 document mainly focused on the three countries with freshly signed DCFTAs (Deep and Comprehensive Trade Agreements), the June 2017 document has been upgraded to include also the three other partners. Now the EU promises to support, in general, not only implementation of the DCFTAs but also “trade among Partner Countries and between them and the EU”.[15] There are also points on support of employment, investments, small and medium enterprises, macroeconomic stability etc., although the specific outputs are defined somewhat vaguely, and it is still unclear how the EU can develop trade relations with Belarus and Armenia that are members of the Russia-dominated Eurasian Economic Union. There is also a detailed section on development of the digital sector, something that closely mirrors Estonian presidency’s priorities and where a substantial contribution by the presidency seems entirely possible.

Connectivity, energy efficiency, environment and climate change, as well as mobility and people-to-people contacts, are also among the main EU’s priorities towards the EaP,[16] where the mobility has traditionally been most visible. Some progress on mobility issues is being made with Azerbaijan and Belarus, and there is a possibility of opening a Visa Liberalisation Dialogue with Armenia, but again, the Estonian Presidency is unlikely to come up with any major novelties. Estonian Presidency programme promises to support other long-term EU’s initiatives such as improving energy security and transport connectivity in the EaP, although the EU Joint Staff Working Document promises slow progress rather than prominent deliverables for the 2017 summit.

Finally, it is interesting to see the changing rhetoric on governance reforms and “common values” such as human rights and justice. Good governance, values and human rights are mentioned both in the programme of the Estonian Presidency as well as in the EU’s Joint Staff Working Document. Indeed, the latter foresees quite a few specific deliverables pertaining to the fight against corruption and money-laundering, justice sector and public administration reform, as well as mentions improved cooperation with civil society as a cross-cutting priority and sets out several deliverables in the fields of education and culture.[17] However, talking about fundamental values is more difficult politically, now when the EU tries to approach Belarus, Armenia and Azerbaijan—the three countries that lag behind on democratic reforms. It also seems that the overall focus on security and resilience has shifted the EU’s priorities to those reforms that have direct or indirect security / resilience implications, such as fight against corruption and money laundering.

To summarize, the Estonian Presidency of the EU Council is planning to continue work in the directions adopted in Riga, and its programme corresponds to overall EU priorities and the new way of thinking about the Eastern Partnership. Thus, there is a broad EU consensus on the future of the Eastern Partnership and the main deliverables, which also, at least partially, takes into account the different partners’ interests and needs. There will likely be steps forward, such as in the digital sphere and in contractual and mobility relations with Armenia, Azerbaijan and Belarus. However, it currently seems that one should not expect any groundbreaking innovations during the Estonian Presidency—if any are planned, they have not yet been announced or hinted at either by Estonia or the EU as a whole. The Brussels summit will be about slow and steady work forward, not about big gestures. Realistically, we cannot expect much more from the EU at this point, although the partner states’ needs stretch far beyond what the EU can offer—politically, economically and security-wise, in a different way for each of the six partner states. The Eastern Partnership will be maintained and slowly develop, but if one wants to see it truly rejuvenated, the EU will have to deal with its own and with partners’ “fatigue”.

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[1] See details and review in Diāna Potjomkina, “A More Geopolitical Eastern Partnership: U-Turn or “The Lady’s Not For Turning”?” (Riga: Latvian Institute of International Affairs, 2015), http://liia.lv/en/publications/a-more-geopolitical-eastern-partnership-u-turn-or-the-ladys-not-for-turning-477

[2] European Commission, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Joint Staff Working Document: Eastern Partnership – Focusing on key priorities and deliverables, Brussels, 15.12.2016, SWD(2016) 467 final, https://eeas.europa.eu/sites/eeas/files/swd_2016_467_f1_joint_staff
_working_paper_en_v3_p1_8733051.pdf

[3] European Commission, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Joint Staff Working Document, Eastern Partnership - 20 Deliverables for 2020, Focusing on key priorities and tangible results, Brussels, 9.6.2017, SWD(2017) 300 final, https://ec.europa.eu/neighbourhood-enlargement/sites/near/files/20_deliverable_for_2020.pdf

[4] See the point made by Vahur Made, “Shining in Brussels? The Eastern Partnership in Estonia’s Foreign Policy”, Perspectives, Vol. 19, No. 2 (2011), although he underestimates the security aspect.

[5] Marge Mardisalu-Kahar, Estonia and the Eastern Partnership: the view from Tallinn, 19.05.2015, http://www.ecfr.eu/article/commentary_estonia_and_the_eastern_
partnership_the_view_from_tallinn3036

[6] Foreign Minister Mikser: Estonia would like ambitious Eastern Partnership to remain in the focus of EU foreign policy, 08.05.2017, https://www.eesistumine.ee/en/news/foreign-minister-mikser-estonia-would-ambitious-eastern-partnership-remain-focus-eu-foreign; Тема Восточного партнерства станет приоритетной для страны во время председательства в Совете ЕС, 30.06.2017, http://interfax.com.ua/news/political/432706.html

[7] Estonian Foreign Ministry quoted in Civil Georgia, Tallinn: Estonian EU Presidency to Advance Eastern Partnership Agenda, 12.07.2017, http://www.civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=30258

[8] Programme of the Estonian Presidency of the Council of the European Union, 1 July 2017 – 31 December 2017, http://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/council-eu/presidency-council-eu/

[9] European Commission, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Joint Staff Working Document, Eastern Partnership - 20 Deliverables for 2020, Focusing on key priorities and tangible results, Brussels, 9.6.2017.

[10] European Commission, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Joint Staff Working Document, Eastern Partnership - 20 Deliverables for 2020, Focusing on key priorities and tangible results, Brussels, 9.6.2017.

[11] European Commission, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Joint Staff Working Document, Eastern Partnership - 20 Deliverables for 2020, Focusing on key priorities and tangible results, Brussels, 9.6.2017.

[12] Sergey Minasyan, “New Opportunities in Armenian-EU Relations”, PONARS Eurasia Policy Memo No. 476, May 2017.

[13] Programme of the Estonian Presidency of the Council of the European Union, 1 July 2017 – 31 December 2017.

[14] European Commission, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Joint Staff Working Document, Eastern Partnership - 20 Deliverables for 2020, Focusing on key priorities and tangible results, Brussels, 9.6.2017, SWD(2017) 300 final.

[15] European Commission, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Joint Staff Working Document, Eastern Partnership - 20 Deliverables for 2020, Focusing on key priorities and tangible results, Brussels, 9.6.2017, SWD(2017) 300 final.

[16] European Commission, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Joint Staff Working Document, Eastern Partnership - 20 Deliverables for 2020, Focusing on key priorities and tangible results, Brussels, 9.6.2017, SWD(2017) 300 final.

[17] European Commission, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Joint Staff Working Document, Eastern Partnership - 20 Deliverables for 2020, Focusing on key priorities and tangible results, Brussels, 9.6.2017, SWD(2017) 300 final.

Publicēts 18. jūlijs, 2017

Autors Diāna Potjomkina