Easing the EU’s Eastern Partnership fatigue

The EU is right to demand reforms from its Eastern Partners – but its own expectations need to adjust to the region’s realities

Periodically, the EU seems to suffer a “Ukraine fatigue”, a “Moldova fatigue” or an “Eastern Partnership fatigue”. Usually, this comes after a country either disappoints in its reform performance or takes a less pro-EU turn, dashing Brussels’ hope of finally achieving a modicum of stability and prosperity east of its borders. This year seems to be no different as the EU approaches the Eastern Partnership summit on 24 November.

These problems are hardly caused by the EU. Many politicians in Eastern Europe and South Caucasus seem to put their own interests above those of their societies. To some of them, launching economic reforms or fighting corruption would amount to dismantling their own rule. This is at the core of most problems in the region and will not change overnight. But the EU needs to change its position, too. Simply put, Europe needs to recognize the political realities within Eastern Partnership (EaP) countries and adjust its reform expectations accordingly. Here is how.

  1. Expect…the expected.

The six countries of Eastern Europe and South Caucasus are often mistakenly seen to be less developed versions of their Central European or Baltic peers. Many expect them to reform as their western neighbours did: with a bit of nudging and support from the EU, but in a more or less orderly way and on their own initiative.

But the analogy simply doesn’t hold. The eastern neighbourhood is not what Central Europe was two decades ago: EaP countries are geographically more distant from western Europe and therefore less exposed to its influence, and they spent more time under the Soviet yoke than their Central European counterparts. Most EU officials would accept this, yet the Eastern Partnership policy remains little more than a lighter version of the EU’s own enlargement policy, without the crucial prospect of membership.

But even if the eastern neighbourhood was Central Europe’s twin, the EU alone could not trigger reforms; this requires local actors to take ownership. Poland and Estonia undertook difficult reforms long before they were promised EU membership. Moreover, while they had an enlightened elite pursuing the public good, they also enjoyed a relatively favourable geopolitical setting: in the 1990s, Europe and the US saw no real geopolitical rivals and Russia was weakened by its domestic crises.

Conditions today are very different: the EU is more consumed by its internal problems and has fewer resources to invest in the region. Not only do the EaP countries have no membership prospects for the moment, but the EU has become reluctant even to acknowledge their ambition to join the club one day. Financially, most of what the EU provides to the region are loans, not grants – for example, in Ukraine, grants constitute only 6% of total EU assistance.

The EU needs to accept that with the legacy of over 70 years of communism and two decades of trial-and-error attempts at transformation, the pace of reform for most EaP states will be significantly slower than it was in Central Europe. Rather than expecting swift changes, the EU should provide as much support as possible for a gradual reform process that accommodates the huge obstacles these countries face. A “reforms blitz” is unlikely to work.

At the same time, the EU needs to think outside the box to keep those countries who desire a closer relationship with the EU on track. For now, Brussels only goes so far as to demand that states spend the next ten years implementing the Association Agreement and the DCFTA. But politically, this is hardly attractive. New incentives and milestones are needed – be it a Customs Union that would further deepen trade relations and improve customs control, or popular initiatives such as the elimination of roaming charges, or integration in the EU’s emerging energy union or digital market. These incentives are not a magic wand that would trigger a full-scale transformation – local politicians need to own the reforms first – but they would send the right signal to those promoting reforms in the EaP: while the path is long, it is worth following.

  1. Mind the neighbours

Russia might see the EaP states as different countries – but not all of them are seen as “foreign”. It is also much more significant trade partner for the region than it was for CEE countries a few years after communism’s collapse. That is why Moscow is keener to preserve its foothold there than it was in Central Europe in the 1990s. And while Russia also claimed a sphere of influence in Central Europe and the Baltics, it is in the eastern neigbourhood where it used an armed invasion, support for secessionists and land grabs to defend it. The EU should not accept Moscow’s moves to recreates its zones of influences – but it should not ignore them either. This would put the EU itself  at risk, as the case of Ukraine shows.

The EU should not withdraw from the region and stop supporting those seeking a westward orientation – quite the opposite. In many ways, the EU has already won in the region – most countries are trying to escape Moscow’s embrace and seek closer ties with Brussels. But with this “victory” comes more responsibility. For the EU, this means not ignoring the grievances between the Eastern partners and their neighbours, including Russia – even if some of Moscow’s grievances are often imagined. One such example is the European Commission’s mediation of annual talks between Russia and Ukraine on securing winter gas supplies.

Of course, it takes all sides to agree. Moscow’s aggression in Ukraine has made finding win-win solutions all the more difficult. The EU should seek potential compromises where possible. But it should also be prepared for confrontation and be ready to provide assistance if necessary. This was the case with the trade talks with Moscow and Ukraine: after they produced no results, the EU stepped up its support for Kyiv’s DCFTA implementation and expanded the quotas for Ukrainian products entering the EU market. 

  1. Don’t look for friends or enemies, look for partners

Everybody likes to have friends. And the EU likes supporting those who call themselves “pro-European”, whether they are governments or NGOs. But most of the time, granting preferential treatment and extended honeymoons to whomever presents themselves as an EU ally does little good. One only needs to look back at the supposedly pro-European Yuschenko administration in Ukraine, which failed to enact any substantial reforms. Or Moldova’s Alliance for European Integration, under whose watch the country saw the biggest state-orchestrated theft in its history. While well-intended, Brussels’ support was often mistaken by local leaders as a carte blanche for their domestic politics.

In this way, the EU has “accentuated divisions and reproduced a fragmented and instable social order”, according to one study. It also judges that the EU’s “positive and partisan assessment and support of change agents and weakening of the opposition (as actors of oversight), has […] opened the way for abuse of power, including the instrumentalization of law, state structures and oversight institutions”.

In other words, when the EU takes sides on the basis of simplistic divisions, it deepens the polarisation in the region. This in turn undermines the EU’s credibility in the eyes of the population, reducing its influence and room for manoeuvre. Europe needs an unpartisan approach rooted in an understanding of the local possibilities: it should partner with those actors that can deliver reforms, irrespective of their current label.

  1. Remember face-saving? It is important.

The EU often talks about win-win solutions – but when it comes to the EaP, it has been stingy in providing them. The case of Yuliya Tymoshenko’s imprisonment is most illustrative: Brussels made the release of Ukraine’s opposition leader, jailed on dubious legal grounds in 2011, one of the key factors determining the future of the country’s relationship with the EU. For then-President Yanukovych’s perspective, this created a zero-sum choice between his domestic political interests and Ukraine’s foreign policy goals. The EU’s position was morally right and understandable – and it indeed it was Yanukovych’s own flawed decision that has put him in that situation. In the end, however, it was the EU that backtracked and was willing to sign the Association Agreement even with Tymoshenko in prison. This would have further damaged its credibility.

Of course, win-win solutions are not always available; for example, membership in a Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union is simply not compatible with Ukraine or Moldova’s free trade agreement with the EU. But even here, the EU’s interests would be better served by transition periods and financial support that allow face-saving.

Finally, the EU needs to take a better note of domestic political realities in the region. In some cases, the EU’s reform demands resemble a Christmas wish-list made by a child oblivious to their parent’s financial means. Brussels is right to demand high standards and the best reforms possible, but it must be more aware of domestic political constraints: there are few reformers in the region and even those do not live in a political vacuum. Would an EU leader substantially increase the pension age or hike energy prices shortly before elections?

The EU should not drop its reform requirements, but demands and expectations should be adjusted to the local context. This will not provide an instant solution to the region’s many problems – which needs to come from the region itself. But it can help ease the EU’s long-suffered Eastern Partnership fatigue.


The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Associate Fellow

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

We will store your email address and gather analytics on how you interact with our mailings. You can unsubscribe or opt-out at any time. Find out more in our privacy notice.