10 years Eastern Partnership – a new vision needed?

Johannes Hahn, outgoing EU Commissioner? Hahn’s Directorate General (DG NEAR) oversees both the European Neighbourhood Policy and the enlargement process. The EU elections in May 2019 may bring a new Commissioner, a new portfolio and a new strategy. Picture: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:EPP_summit_-_Vienna,_20._June_2013_(9090973757).jpg

10 years after the launch of the Eastern Partnership (EaP), the EU finds itself in a strategic dilemma: On the one hand the ‘European aspirations’ of many of the Eastern partners are the driving force behind their domestic democratic reform process; on the other hand, the very same European aspirations have resulted in geopolitical tensions and political instability in which the necessary reform process is unlikely to take place. The loophole to resolve this strategic dilemma is understanding the EaP and in its entire complexity – as interplay of geopolitics and domestic politics.

Inefficiency and unintended consequences

In order to foster democratic and socio-economic reforms in the eastern neighbourhood the EU relies on institution-building, capacity-building and acquis transfer. The frontrunners of EU integration are Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia which have signed an Association Agreement (AA) and a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) the EU in 2014. However, terms of democratic transition those instruments have proven inefficient against oligarchic political practices in partner states (Wolczuk 2019). Furthermore, in some cases (e.g. Moldova) the EaP has unintentionally empowered illiberal incumbent elites as they could instrumentalize EU support and use it as a cover-up for rent-seeking political practices (Dandashly and Noutcheva 2019). In the terms of market integration, the EU has “oversold the long-term value of joining the DCFTA while ignoring the short-term costs to industry and failing to provide sufficient funds to support modernisation” (Groza et al. 2017).

Noticing its own inefficiency and potential unintended consequences, the EU substantially downscaled budget support programs as a result of inefficiency (i.e. Ukraine) or put them on hold as a result of democratic backsliding (i.e. Moldova). Instead the EU has increasingly focused on civil society support, economic development, connectivity, and infrastructure and development projects.

The EaP and geopolitics

In the course of the past 10 years, the EU’s own integration agenda became challenged by Russia’s antagonistic integration project. This has three consequences: First, it became clear that the Kremlin’s policies matter to determine the outcome of EU policies on the ground. Russia possesses the power to stir instability in EaP countries by spreading disinformation or promoting the Russian world view or to ‘punish’ partner state’s foreign policy choices by trade-related sanctions. Second, over many years, the EU pursued a policy that aimed at exporting the EU’s system of governance to a region which the Kremlin regarded as its own backyard. In doing so, the EaP contributed to a deterioration of EU-Russia relations, as it undermined the EU’s credibility as strategic partner from a Russian perspective (Casier 2019). Third, besides Russia’s direct responses, geopolitics has captured domestic political discourses in many partner countries and forms the basis for foreign policy decision making. The resulting polarization between ‘pro-Western’ and ‘pro-Russian’ political actors may not only weaken social cohesion in the partner states but also be beneficial for oligarchs as they can distract from their corrupt political practices.

Although unintended on the EU’s part, the EaP has earned enormous geopolitical significance in the foreign policy making of partner countries, thirds states like Russia, and above all the EU itself. However, the EaP’s institutional design stems from the EU enlargement process in which geopolitics did not play a role at all. It is therefore ill-equipped to operate in a geopolitical context. The Europeanization mechanisms, namely the rational-institutionalist logic of consequence and the social-constructivist logic of appropriateness, are taken ad-absurdum if partner states foreign policy decisions (e.g. signing the AA and DCFTA) are guided by geopolitical thought. Moreover EU strategic documents neither engage with potential repercussions from Russia’s reactions, nor do they consider potential consequences for EU-Russia relations. Hence, through the lens of a holistic perspective, the assumption that the EaP is a bilateral issue between the EU and the partner states has become a major obstacle for the effectiveness of the EaP and stands in contradiction to the EU’s primary goal of fostering political stability and democracy in its eastern neighbourhood.

A new vision for the eastern neighbourhood

Understanding this strategic dilemma in its entire complexity and with all its feedback loops is the challenge of future EaP policy making. Together with the partner countries a new vision for the neighbourhood should be developed – a vision in which the eastern neighbours are neither appendage to the EU, nor left alone with Russia’s aggressive practices but aims to emancipate the region from geopolitical influences. This is all the harder since the EU itself is fundamentally divided over how to deal with Russia (hardliner versus ‘Putinversteher’) and as the EU itself undergoes a phase of ‘consolidation’ (i.e. Brexit and the rise of Eurosceptic actors within the EU). Especially the Netherlands and Germany turned increasingly sceptic towards EU integration of the eastern partners; other EU member states, like Romania, Poland, Sweden and the Baltic States as well as the European Parliament have advocated stronger EU engagement. As an allegedly Russia-friendly country, Austria has played an ambivalent role and neither championed nor blocked the EaP at any level. Austria’s political strategies focus on relatively strong development aid, strengthening economic relations, and the promotion of a ‘model of neutrality’ as a response to the geopolitical tensions in the region.

Guiding principles of the New Eastern Partnership

10 years after the launch of the EaP, the EU and the partner states should develop a new strategic vision for the neighbourhood. Such a vision follows an emancipatory approach and turns the alleged weakness – the region’s in-betweenness – into strength. As a first step, respective wording should enter the EU’s strategic documents (e.g. EaP summit declarations).

The New Eastern partnership should ultimately shake off the legacy of enlargement and unequivocally turn into a foreign-policy instrument (the policy practice reflects this already). This means that the EU moves away from conditionality, top-down institution-building (i.e. budget support programs), and heavy-burdening rule-transfer agreements (i.e. the AA and the DCFTA). Instead, the EU support should focus on development aid and continue to re-direct funding into concrete bottom-up democratization, better connectivity, infrastructure and social projects.

The New Eastern Partnership should adopt a holistic perspective, acknowledging the interplay of geopolitical and domestic dynamics. Repercussions from the changing regional trade and security architecture should become policy-relevant considerations.

Austria’s promotion of neutrality as a model for partner states is a meaningful contribution to such a debate. Austria and like-minded states should continue turning this into a strategic position on an EU level and bilaterally with EaP countries.



Casier, Tom. 2019. The Unintended Consequences of a European Neighbourhood Policy without Russia. The International Spectator 54 (1):76-88.

Dandashly, Assem, and Gergana Noutcheva. 2019. Unintended Consequences of EU Democracy Support in the European Neighbourhood. The International Spectator 54 (1):105-120.

Groza, Iulian, Balazs Jarabik, Jana Kobozova, Viktor Konstantynov, Tsovinar Kuiumchian, Leonid Litra, Tornike Sharashenidze, and Isaac Webb. 2017. The state of implementation of the associations and free trade agreements with Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova with a particular focus on Ukraine and systemic analysis of key sectors. Directorate General for External Policies of the EU. http://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/STUD/2017/603836/EXPO_STU(2017)603836_EN.pdf

Wolczuk, Kataryna; Zerulois, Darius. 2019. Fit for Purpose? Evaluating the EU’s Assistance to Ukraine. EU-STRAT Policy Brief Series 5. http://eu-strat.eu/?p=1439


An earlier version of this Policy Brief is currently published with the Austrian Society for European Politics (https://oegfe.at).

About the author

Johann Wolfschwenger is Marie Curie Doctoral Fellow at the Université Libre de Bruxelles and the Université de Genève. For more information please see: https://gem-stones.eu/people/johann-wolfschwenger