The Eastern Partnership summit that took place in Latvia’s capital Riga on 21-22 May this year was evaluated by commentators as somewhere on the range between ‘lacking new momentum‘ to ‘disastrous’. The cautious approach by the EU is explained by many with the desire not to provoke new action by Russia with declarations about Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia’s European destiny and the need to allow the fragile Minsk II peace to take hold. Not only are Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia far from receiving the much desired EU membership perspective, the symbolic commitment from the EU to take them as members when they would fulfill its criteria for membership, but the expected visa liberalization decision for Ukraine has not materialized either. The language of the final declaration, reportedly the result of an uneasy compromise with Belarus and Armenia (on how to refer to the Crimea) is firm but non-committal.
In the wake of this disappointing summit, it is too easy, but also misleading to see the relations of Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, the three Eastern Partnership states seeking closer ties with the EU, through a geopolitical lens only. Coming closer to the EU has always been about domestic reforms to fulfill technical requirements and harmonize with the acquis. It is now forgotten that Central and Eastern European states which are now EU members had to work to adapt to the commitments undertaken in their Association agreements before they received a membership perspective. Even as they negotiated for membership, CEE leaders knew the reforms they undertook were a modernization tool, as an end in themselves and not only something to do because the EU wanted it. While not all of the acquis has been beneficial for the economies of the new member states all the time, the commitment to rule of law and the EU’s regulatory model has taken the EU’s Eastern members on the road to better governance and economic growth.
The best path for Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova would be one of reforms for their own sake and not to please the EU. This is admittedly hard, for many reasons, starting from domestic instability to the regional threats. In a nuanced and realistic article written for The Carnegie Endowment for Peace, de Waal and Youngs call this approach‘reforms as resilience’. They argue that better functioning institutions would give EaP states de facto sovereignty and more confidence to choose their strategic identity. Furthermore, reforms, especially reforms in governance to make institutions less corrupt and more effective in providing public services is something citizens in these countries may appreciate in and of itself, rather than because the EU wants it. The focus on geopolitics obscures this and may almost provide a helpful excuse for reluctant elites, keen to preserve their privileged access to power and continue extracting rents.
The European Union’s moral authority to point to the need for reform is also currently obscured by its own geopolitical caution. It is the citizens of EaP states that should be the ones to make the choice clear: for reforms, regardless of the EU membership perspective. Yet the deeply rooted patterns of corruption and rent seeking and the economic weakness of neighbourhood states make it difficult to re-kindle domestic reform energy. Nevertheless, the path of domestic reforms may be the only one to break the vicious circle of mutual lack of serious commitment that the EU and its Eastern partners seem to have entered.