The European Union (EU) will always be flanked by two sets of partners: those to its East and those to its South. Consequently, its Eastern Partnership will never become irrelevant, and it will continue to warrant close attention from policymakers and citizens in years to come. This said, securing a bright future for the Partnership will require a substantial revamping of its fundamentals, from its underpinning rationale to its day-to-day execution.
One of the criticisms sometimes waged against the Eastern Partnership is that it seeks to impose domestic political changes in societies that aren’t ready for them nor necessarily want them. This argument seeks to equate the European Union’s doings along its borders to cases of past Western colonization or forceful cultural assimilation. And indeed, it is true that structural societal and political change cannot be imposed from the outside. But such parallels are unjustified, for they miss one fundamental difference between the Eastern Partnership and such historical precedents, which is that the countries of the Eastern Partnership are taking part in this modern transformation exercise on their own accord, because they are attracted by the prospective benefits that closer integration with the EU can deliver. This makes such domestic changes not only more legitimate but potentially more robust and sustainable as well.
The question then becomes whether these potential benefits maintain their attractiveness today as they did in the 1990s and early 2000s, and whether some of the Eastern Partnership’s main countries might be less attracted by the EU model. The short answer is that while the European Union’s troubles of recent years have undeniably made a dent in its soft power, this has not – at least yet – lessened its appeal. First, despite the EU’s Grexit and Brexit woes, the Union remains a solid economic carrot. Not only have all of the EU’s new entrants abundantly benefited from joining the group throughout history – thereby creating a powerful precedent – but even as recently as 2017 the Union displayed surprisingly impressive growth rates and economic dynamism. While Russia has proved more resilient than many would have expected in the face of Western sanctions and depressed oil prices, it has not coupled this resilience – again, at least yet -- with an aspirational message for its neighbors to look towards.
Is all of this to say that the Eastern Partnership is in great shape? Far from. In order to have a productive future, the European Union’s neighborhood policy will have to undertake two transformations in coming years. The first is that the time for formal association mechanisms that clearly define which countries are “in” or “out” of a given regional grouping has passed. Today, strategies such as China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) that allow states to flexibly join parts of an initiative without necessarily committing to it irreversibly, foregoing competing offers, or integrating all aspects of their socio-political life have the upper hand. The casualness of China’s BRI explains in part how successfully it has managed to co-exist with Russia’s own Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) across overlapping geographies. One solution may be for the European Union to explore similar approaches to smoothening tensions between the EU and EAEU in countries in which Moscow and Brussels have competing interests. Historically, this approach has been equated to settling for a lowest common denominator, but this need not be the case, and the great need not become the enemy of the good when it comes to European influence.
Finally, while the Eastern Partnership will remain critical in years to come, one must recognize that the greatest dynamism along Europe’s borders will increasingly stem from its South – specifically from the Middle East and Africa. The South – more so than the East – is where the EU’s greatest threats and opportunities will likely emerge as youthful populations meet climate change and other transformative trends at play. The logical conclusion from this observation is that the EU’s neighborhood policy must increasingly become geographically holistic and can no longer afford to focus primarily on its Eastern flank.