Fourteen years ago, the European Union launched its Eastern Partnership initiative. The aim was to strengthen ties between the EU and its neighbours to the east – in turn contributing to the stability, prosperity, and resilience of the neighbouring countries. More than a decade later, research from ECFR provided a new lens through which to view the initiative: that of young foreign policy practitioners in the Eastern Partnership states. The research found that they have little or no memory of the Soviet era and that they are optimistic and pro-European. Young diplomats bring a fresh perspective, but more importantly they are the future of policy thinking and the leading edge of governance in these countries. They tell us not just where the Eastern Partnership countries are, but where they are going.
Since its inception, the Eastern Partnership initiative has had an uneven track record. It has, for example, provided a useful format for exchange – notably achieving such important goals as a visa-free travel agreement with the EU for Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine (the ‘Association Trio’). Progress under the framework also paved the way for the subsequent granting of EU candidate status to the trio. However, the initiative has failed to enhance the overall stability of the region. The past years have witnessed several wars, increasing fragmentation among the Eastern Partnership countries, state capture in Belarus, and now the war in Ukraine. This has led some observers to call for a completely new approach, with some even arguing the policy is now unfit for purpose.
Young diplomats overwhelmingly believe it would be a mistake to scrap the initiative entirely. They instead favour a reformed and revitalised Eastern Partnership that could help the EU and its eastern neighbours jointly address new challenges. Arguably the greatest of these challenges – Russia’s war in Ukraine – has laid bare both the common difficulties and different vulnerabilities of the Eastern Partnership states. The EU should use this clarity to reassess the way it engages with them. This should involve transforming the Eastern Partnership into a more results-oriented cooperation policy that is tailor-made to address the needs and priorities of each country.
A view from the neighbourhood
All the Eastern Partnership countries have their weak spots. But, so far, the EU has not provided sufficient investment to enhance their strategic and infrastructural resilience and diversify their economies. Most of the partner states remain extremely vulnerable to Russia’s energy, economic, and military dominance – and this colours their leaders’ thinking around their foreign policy.
Young diplomats raise myriad concerns about the security of energy and food supplies, as well as the possible escalation of the war and potential use of nuclear weapons by Russia. For some of the Eastern Partnership states, the security dimension outweighs other concerns. This is the case for Moldova, where the war has exposed the continued weakness of the country’s security sector; and Georgia – which still has open wounds from the Russian occupation of its territory since 2008. A more bespoke approach to the Eastern Partnership would permit cooperation on the most pressing security matters from the perspective of the vulnerable states. This could include sharing expertise on hybrid threats, intensified intelligence sharing, assistance with border protection, and bolder cooperation in the military sphere.
The economic impact of the war is another major concern for Eastern Partnership countries, especially those that have strong dependencies on or economic ties with Russia. As the war disrupts supplies of food, energy, and other vital goods, the position of these countries becomes more and more vulnerable. Their leaders are forced perform a balancing act – implementing the domestic reforms necessary for closer integration with the EU, while attempting to withstand significant pressure from Russia. Moscow’s recent energy blackmail against Chisinau illustrates this perfectly: last year, the Kremlin created an energy crisis in the country by hiking gas prices, using this to press Chisinau and obstruct the government’s path towards reform.
Other Eastern Partnership countries are in an equally difficult position – albeit for different reasons. The societies of Armenia and Azerbaijan, for instance, are having to navigate the impact of the war and Western sanctions against Russia on remittances from their sizable diasporas in Russia and Ukraine. And the situation is particularly dire in Belarus, where Moscow’s leverage over Minsk’s economic, foreign policy, and defence decisions has only intensified since the war began.
The future of the Eastern Partnership
A recalibrated Eastern Partnership policy would help the EU address some of these concerns. It should aim to promote flexible and mutually beneficial cooperation, as well as take tangible steps to lessen the hardships induced by the war and reduce the countries’ dependencies on Russia. Doing so would enhance the stability of the region, thereby helping to address one of the initiative’s key failures to date. It would also establish the EU as the key actor in some of the eastern partnership states and challenge Moscow’s dominance over the others – given Russia’s diminished ability to exert its influence since its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
To facilitate this, the EU should present the Eastern Partnership countries with an array of policies and instruments that could reinforce cooperation in the areas most relevant to each of the states. When feasible, this should include security issues. More bespoke flagship projects – such as in energy, connectivity, and digitalisation – would help the EU build leverage in its relations with the partnership states. This could take the form of investments in energy supply routes and critical infrastructure, as well as transport, trade, and communications.
Given Russia’s attempts to disrupt reform in the region, the EU should help those states which seek closer cooperation with the bloc to do so through a greater emphasis on good governance reforms, knowledge-sharing, support for anti-corruption measures, and the empowerment of civil society organisations. The Eastern Partnership could, for example, serve as a platform to engage with Belarusian civil society in exile. The illegitimate regime in Minsk suspended Belarus’s participation in the Eastern Partnership and dragged it into Russia’s war against the will of the Belarusian people. The Belarusian opposition, independent media, and NGOs are all exiled – and will be in danger of extinction without legal and financial assistance. Belarus’s democratic movement should receive support and have the right to represent their country in the Eastern Partnership.
Finally, the initiative could provide an important platform for the EU to play a stronger mediation role in dialogue between Eastern Partnership countries. This could be of particular relevance for Armenia and Azerbaijan – given the rising tensions over the Nagorno-Karabakh region. EU-facilitated mediation in the Eastern Partnership framework would help demonstrate the EU’s commitment to stability in its neighbourhood.
Much has changed since the launch of the Eastern Partnership initiative 14 years ago, and even since ECFR began to seek the insights of young diplomats from the region in 2021. But the pro-European optimism we uncovered in that group also runs strongly through today’s cohort. Their belief that a reformed Eastern Partnership can achieve its goals of improving the stability, prosperity, and resilience of the region reflects that. But this is no blind optimism. Young diplomats recognise that all parties will have to overcome considerable challenges to make the initiative work.
These are challenges worth facing – since a revitalised Eastern Partnership would help both the EU and its eastern neighbours adapt to today’s reality.
This piece represents neither the opinion of any specific participant of the EU-Eastern Partnership network of young diplomats nor of ECFR. All opinions are solely those of the authors.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.